This report is based on a three-week mission by Human Rights Watch researchers to the Democratic Republic of Congo (Congo) and Rwanda in October and November 2001 and on prior and subsequent research. Our team carried out research in Bukavu, Shabunda, and Uvira in South Kivu province and in and around Goma in North Kivu province together with colleagues from the Congolese human rights organizations Héritiers de la Justice, Réseau des Femmes pour la Défense des Droits et la Paix, Promotion et Appui aux Initiatives Féminines, Solidarité pour la Promotion Sociale et la Paix, Action Sociale pour la Paix et le Développement and several associations in Uvira.1 We interviewed more than fifty women and girls2 who had been subjected to sexual or gender-based violence3 as well as others who had escaped an attempted rape. We also spoke with relatives of women and girls who had either been raped or escaped rape and with others who had witnessed assaults. Those interviewed came from both towns and rural areas. In addition, we interviewed local authorities, religious and health personnel, and representatives of local and international nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) working in the areas of human rights, women's rights, and health, and United Nations (U.N.) officials. We participated in meetings with associations of rape victims, women's organizations, and support groups for women infected with HIV or suffering from AIDS.
Research into sexual violence is highly sensitive and requires taking into account the consequences for the survivors/victims4 of speaking out- whether in terms of their immediate security, their standing in the community, or their psychological and emotional states.5 Many victims are threatened with further harm by the perpetrators if they speak of the rape and they are reluctant to report the crime. Some risk their lives by revealing what happened to them. If the perpetrators are part of the military or are linked to civilian authorities in control of the immediate area, the risk of talking publicly of the rape may increase. Members of nongovernmental organizations and medical and religious personnel who have discussed rapes, particularly if their comments imply criticism of local authorities, have also been threatened with harm and some of them subsequently hesitate to talk about the problem. Rape victims are often stigmatized by the rest of the community and even by their own family members. Speaking about the crime may expose survivors to such rejection. Family members may share the concerns of the survivors about security and standing in the community and may urge them to keep silence. Victims who recount the circumstances of the crime, moreover, may suffer from renewed or intensified psychological and physical stress reactions that characterize post traumatic stress syndrome.
Taking into consideration these concerns, we interviewed victims in the presence only of a translator, if needed, and a family member or friend, health professional or religious counselor, if the presence of such a person was desired by the interviewee. In almost all cases the translator was a person known to the interviewee. Ordinarily all present were women. In the few cases where a man was present, it was with the permission of the interviewee. In order to guarantee the confidentiality of all information, the names of interviewees have been changed and sometimes details of dates and locations of interviews have been omitted in this report. While we sought as much information as possible from each interview, the well-being of the interviewee was always paramount and some interviews were cut short as a result.
We were struck by the courage and strength of many survivors who shared their experiences with us despite the risks, fear, and embarrassment that this entailed. A twelve-year-old girl who was raped concluded her testimony by saying she was willing to talk about the rape because "it is important that this doesn't happen to other people."6
This report is part of a larger project by Human Rights Watch and Congolese human rights associations to combat human rights violations, in particular sexual violence, in Congo. In September 2000, Human Rights Watch and Héritiers de la Justice organized a workshop with women's and human rights associations from Bukavu on this issue. In October 2001, Human Rights Watch and Promotion et Appui aux Initiatives Feminines (PAIF) led a second workshop for members of human rights and women's organizations, medical personnel, and lawyers from North and South Kivu to examine the medical and human rights aspects of sexual violence in the context of the war in Congo.
1 Human rights colleagues from Uvira have asked that their associations not be named in this report.
2 In this report the terms "girls" and "boys" refer to children. Article 219 of the Congolese Family Code defines a child as a person under the age of eighteen. Under international law, persons below the age of eighteen are considered children (art. 1 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, September 2, 1990). All states are party to the Convention on the Rights of the Child except for the United States of America and Somalia.
3 The term "sexual violence" is used in this report to refer to all forms of violence of a sexual nature, such as rape, attempted rape, sexual assault, and sexual threat. Gender-based violence is violence directed at an individual, male or female, based on his or her specific gender role in society, such as, in the case of women and girls, being forced to cook and clean. Sexual and gender-based violence are frequently associated.
4 Women and girls who have been raped can be presented and/or perceived either as victims or survivors and there is an ongoing debate as to which is the more appropriate term. In this report both terms are used interchangeably without significant distinction.
5 On the methodological issues, see Agnès Callamard, A Methodology for Gender-Sensitive Research (Quebec: Amnesty International Publications and the International Centre for Human Rights and Democratic Development, 1999); Documenting Human Rights Violations by State Agents: Sexual Violence (Quebec: Amnesty International Publications and the International Centre for Human Rights and Democratic Development, 1999).
6 Human Rights Watch interview, Goma, October 25, 2001.