The 15-year-old girl, looking even younger than her years, lay on a mattress in a shelter in eastern Congo, her sleeping newborn son beside her. "I was just coming back from the river to fetch water," Regine told Juliane Kippenberg, senior children's rights researcher for Human Rights Watch. "Two soldiers came up to me and told me that if I refuse to sleep with them, they will kill me. They beat me and ripped my clothes. One of the soldiers raped me."
Regine's parents brought her to the local army commander. "I recognized the two soldiers, and I know that one of them is called Edouard," she told Kippenberg. The commander said Regine was lying.
Sadly, Regine, whose name has been changed in this article to protect her identity, is one of thousands of women and girls who were raped during the Congo's brutal conflict. The United Nations estimates that 200,000 women and girls have been the victims of sexual violence since 1998. In 2008 alone, nearly 16,000 rapes were reported in Congo. In the east of the country, a battleground for government troops, militias, and foreign armies, sexual violence is practiced systematically by many fighters. Since January 2009 attacks on civilians have increased, with both government soldiers and militia fighters committing horrendous sexual crimes.
When Kippenberg started investigating sexual violence in Congo for Human Rights Watch nearly a decade ago, there was little awareness about the problem. She wrote the report The War Within the War in 2002, helping put the issue on the international agenda. A second report in 2005 highlighted the need for national prosecutions and called for a new law to broaden the definition of sexual violence and strengthen penalties.
For the past five years, Human Rights Watch's researchers in Goma have helped raise awareness of sexual violence in Congo and internationally by documenting rape, working with women's rights activists to organize advocacy efforts, lobbying judicial officials on cases, and urging journalists to cover the issue. We pressed governments and organizations to improve support for victims and start addressing sexual violence on the political level.
Human Rights Watch became concerned, however, that despite growing awareness of the massive scale of sexual violence in Congo, rape was not decreasing. Very few soldiers had been prosecuted for rape, nor had any higher-level commanders. In early 2009, Kippenberg and her colleagues took on a new investigation. She focused on the 14th brigade of the Congolese Army, whose record illustrates some of the broader problems contributing to sexual violence: internal divisions, chaotic chain of command, impunity, and poor living conditions for soldiers. Kippenberg interviewed not only the victims but also soldiers. She and her colleagues also spoke to military justice officials, who said army commanders frequently block their investigations.
Finally, this summer, after years of campaigning, we started to see some movement. In July, just before our most recent report on sexual violence was published, President Joseph Kabila agreed to meet with Human Rights Watch. Human Rights Watch's executive director, Kenneth Roth, and the senior researcher on Congo, Anneke Van Woudenberg, met with President Kabila in a tent on the shores of Lake Kivu. "We made the greatest progress on an anti-rape strategy," Roth says.
Human Rights Watch then held a press conference in Goma where we loudly criticized the brutal abuses by all belligerents to the conflict, including the widespread rape by government soldiers.
In a decisive step soon after the meeting with Kabila and our press conference, the military announced a zero-tolerance policy for sexual violence and other abuses. Since July, several rape trials have been opened, one leading to the conviction of two high-level officers. Another officer has recently been arrested, accused of raping a 28-year-old woman and persuading three other soldiers to rape her too. Four other high-level officers are under investigation for related charges.
In August, Human Rights Watch briefed US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's specialist on women's issues and our Goma office helped to organize a meeting between Secretary Clinton and women's rights activists during her visit to Congo. Following these meetings, Secretary Clinton expressed serious concern at the lack of sexual violence prosecutions and pledged US$17 million in aid for victims of sexual violence.
After so many years of working on this issue, Kippenberg is encouraged by the new developments but also cautious. She wants to make sure that prosecutions continue and that the military actually changes its policies. She knows it will take continuing advocacy to keep the Congolese government and donor governments focused on ending sexual violence. "For justice to prevail," Kippenberg says, "senior military officials must continue to be investigated and prosecuted for sexual crimes."
Regine still faces tough choices. Her family has told her she may come home-but without her baby. If the army finally begins to take rape prosecutions seriously, other girls might not have to live through such horror.