How many women have been raped in the Congo?

How many women have been raped in the eastern Congo? We have no exact figure, and we all know how difficult it is to get good data. Rape survivors are afraid to tell and many are in remote areas, where no records are kept of the violence.

According to one UN estimate that I first saw in 2008, 200,000 women have been raped since 1998. Last week, the head of the UN peacekeeping mission in the Congo told the UN Security Council that 15,000 women had been raped in the East of the country alone in 2009. The UN Population Fund came out with a figure of 17,507 for the whole country for the same period.

I am pretty sure that the UNFPA figures come from records provided through a central data bank, into which health centers, NGOs and UN agencies feed data. One of the problems I have heard is that “sexual violence” as recorded in health centers includes a relatively wide spectrum of violence, including domestic abuse.

Other researchers have adopted a different methodology, carrying out surveys in which they ask a randomized sample of men women a bunch of health related questions, including about sexual violence. One such survey, a Demographic and Health Survey carried out in 2007, surveyed around 10,000 women throughout the Congo. They asked women between 18-49 about being forced to have sex with a man:

10% said that the first time they had had sex it was forced; 16% said that as some point in their life they had been forced to have sex; and 4% said that they had been forced to have sex in the previous 12 months.

Interestingly, the variation between provinces defies expectations. The highest rate of forced sex was in North Kivu (25% said they had had forced sex as some point), but the second and forth highest rates were Equateur and Bandundu, respectively (19% and 18%), provinces where there has not been nearly as high levels of armed conflict as in the Kivus.

One problem is that the study asked about forced sexual relations in general, not the rape you observe during armed conflict. Unfortunately, many women in the Congo suffer this kind of domestic abuse. As terrible as it is, conjugal rape is different from military rape.

Another, more recent study (2010) carried out by American researchers and published in the Journal of the American Medical Association focused on the Kivus and Ituri. Researchers interviewed around a thousand men and women. They found that a shocking 39.7% of the women had experienced sexual violence in their lifetime and an amazing 23.6% of men.

There were other counter-intuitive findings: of the women who had experienced sexual violence in conflict settings (74.3% of total), over 40% had experienced it at the hands of women with no men present.

This begs the question: How did the researchers, who have done similar studies in West Africa and Darfur, define sexual violence? Was it any kind of sexual intimidation or harassment, or was it actual rape? I will try to get the full data they collected and report back.