The international community must take urgent action to eliminate rampant sexual violence in war-torn eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Stephen Lewis, former UN special envoy for AIDS in Africa, has said.
"The contagion of sexual violence on the African continent is blood-chilling, and nowhere more so than in the eastern DRC," Lewis said at a press conference in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, on 13 September. "Despite this, there seems to be unwillingness among the international community to take action."
He noted that while the world focused, understandably, on the crisis in the western Sudanese region of Darfur, eastern DRC - which has suffered 10 to 20 times more casualties than Darfur over the course of its decade-long war - had fallen off the agenda.
"Nowhere on this planet is such a holocaust of horror visited on women and girls," Lewis said.
In July, Yakin Erturk, special rapporteur of the UN Human Rights Council on Violence against Women, said an estimated 4,500 cases of rape had been reported in the eastern province of South Kivu in the first six months of 2007 alone, with many more going unreported. She noted that sexual violence was perceived as “normal” by local communities.
Lewis also criticised the Kinshasa-based government of President Joseph Kabila for having neither the "capacity nor the commitment" to deal with sexual violence in the east.
"Kinshasa has very little influence over the marauding gangs in the east," he said. "Sadly, the perpetrators of the violence are often men in uniform."
Lewis said “predictable” measures such as increased troop numbers and the involvement of the International Criminal Court were inadequate in the face of the scale of brutality in the DRC. He noted that a “dramatic departure” from traditional measures was necessary to tackle the problem head-on.
If we don't do something, and soon, HIV/AIDS and violence against women are destined to win.
"Crises driven by the oppression of women do not simply fade away if they are ignored. They explode," he said. "The AIDS virus thrives on armed conflict. Sexual violence thrives on armed conflict.
"If we don't do something, and soon, HIV/AIDS and violence against women are destined to win," he added. The DRC has an HIV prevalence of 3.2 percent; provision of HIV education and treatment has been severely limited by the war in the east.
Lewis recommended that an international agency for women be created within the UN system.
"Such an organisation, headed by an under-secretary general, would ensure that women's issues were not ignored," he said. "We also need to convene female experts on rape to come up with recommendations for the situation in the Congo because the world seems to be at a loss as to how to handle it."
War broke out in the DRC in 1998, and although the country held successful national elections in 2006, various militia groups continue to terrorise civilians in many areas of the east.