Congo Rape Victims Caught In Political Crossfire

NPR's Melissa Block speaks to Anneke Van Woudenberg, senior researcher for the Democratic Republic of Congo with Human Rights Watch, about Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's visit to Congo and the plight of rape victims caught in the crossfire of that country's political conflicts

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Madeleine Brand.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

Today, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton heard firsthand accounts of widespread rape as she visited a camp for displaced people in eastern Congo. Clinton told a group of aid workers, those who attack civilian populations using systematic rape are guilty of crimes against humanity. And she pledged $17 million to fight the epidemic of sexual violence there.

To learn more, we're joined by Anneke Van Woudenberg, who spends about half her time in Congo as a researcher for Human Rights Watch. Welcome to the program.

Ms. ANNEKE VAN WOUDENBERG (Researcher, Human Rights Watch): Thank you.

BLOCK: And the numbers that we hear about from the Congolese war are just staggering, more than five million people believed killed since 1998. What about the numbers of rapes as best you can calculate?

Ms. VAN WOUDENBERG: Well, according to the United Nations, at least 200,000 women and girls have been raped since 1998. Now, of course, as always with rape statistics, those are the women who have come forward, who are coming to health centers, who are seeking medical treatment. I think that as many people who work in eastern Congo, that that probably is the tip of the iceberg. I don't know any family or any community in eastern Congo who has not been touched by this horror, by this evil.

BLOCK: And as we've been hearing more about it lately, a crime not just against women, but also against men and boys. Secretary Clinton today heard about an 8-year-old boy who had been raped.

Ms. VAN WOUDENBERG: We are seeing that more, as well. Since January there have been military operations going on in eastern Congo by the Congolese government against a rebel group who are known as the FDLR, one of the many alphabet soup of groups in eastern Congo. This one includes amongst its leaders some of those who perpetrated the genocide in Rwanda in 1994.

But since those military operations have begun, we are seeing a massive increase in human rights violations, including rape. And that indeed does include, also, growing cases of men and boys being raped.

BLOCK: You were just recently in eastern Congo. What were you hearing about this escalation of sexual violence and, in particular, the role of the Congolese army?

Ms. VAN WOUDENBERG: Well, I have to say, in my head, I think I've probably got hundreds, if not thousands now, of stories of women and girls who have been raped. But I have to say on this last trip I was really shocked by one story that I heard of a young 15-year-old girl who had been kept in a hole in the ground for five months naked and raped repeatedly day after day after day. And she then fell pregnant as a result of the rape. And when she got home, of course, you know, showing a big bump, her family excluded her from the home, saying that she had brought this on herself.

I wish that these stories were rare. I wish that this was an exception. But this particular story was not. And what hurts in particular, I think, for many of the women and girls is that this isn't just rebel troops, this isn't just armed groups, militia groups raping. It is also the soldiers of the Congolese army. The very people who are supposed to be protecting them are raping them.

BLOCK: And that's a military operation, we should point out, that is backed by the United States.

Ms. VAN WOUDENBERG: And indeed, in fact, by the United Nations of which, of course, the United States is one of the main financial backers. This is a military operation that is causing immense suffering, immense damage. And I'm glad that today, Hillary Clinton learned more about that, heard some of the direct testimony. She's been making strong statements and those now need to be backed up by policy change and by ensuring that those who rape are held to account.

BLOCK: When you hear Secretary Clinton talk today about $17 million to fight this epidemic of sexual violence, how do you think that money would best be spent?

Ms. VAN WOUDENBERG: Well, one of the things that have worried us at Human Rights Watch is that there is increasing amounts of aid money going into helping the victims of sexual violence. That's good, and these are people who definitely need assistance. But we also think a lot more money needs to go into stopping rape.

You know, I was really struck by this, my last visit to eastern Congo, that not only has rape continued, the fact is that rape has doubled or tripled since January. And I think much more of the money needs to go to stopping rape. That means ensuring that there's justice. It means better protection mechanisms for women and girls. We shouldn't just be helping the victims. We need to ensure that there are less victims in the future.

BLOCK: Anneke Van Woudenberg is a senior researcher with Human Rights Watch. She spoke with us from London. Thank you very much.

Ms. VAN WOUDENBERG: Thank you.

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