Shocking Congo rape statistics show husbands - not just soldiers, rebels - perpetuate the problem

More than 400,000 women were raped in a 12-month period in 2006-07, according to a new study.

By , Staff writer

Shocking statistics are coming from a new report on rape in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

More than 400,000 women were raped in a 12-month period in 2006-07, according to a new study by three public health researchers from the International Food Policy Research Institute, Stony Brook University in New York, and the World Bank.

The study, due to be published in the American Journal of Public Health in June, found that 1,152 women were raped every day during that time frame – a rate equal to 48 per hour.

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The number of women raped at least once in the conflict-torn eastern province of North Kivu – 67 per 1,000, according to the study – means a woman there is more than 100 times more likely to be raped than a woman in the United States.

"The take-home message: This is the first time we have a ballpark figure for sexual violence in the Congo," writes Congo expert and Christian Science Monitor guest blogger, Jason Stearns. "Previous figures were based on women self-reporting, and ranged between 15,000-17,000 per year. And of course the real take home message is: levels of sexual violence are extremely high. Now the job is to figure out what can be done to address this."

The scale of the numbers, which the researchers caution are conservative estimates in what was already dubbed "rape capital of the world," are indeed staggering.

But another statistic may be more sobering – and important to any future attempts to combat the problem: 22.5 percent of women have experienced sexual violence from their husbands or partners, according to the report.

That's the real story, according to Monitor correspondent Jina Moore.

Indeed, that stat complicates the oft-repeated storyline that the main problem stems from soldiers and rebels using rape as a weapon of war in Congo's east.

Sure, rebels and government soldiers alike still use rape to terrorize villages into submission. I remember listening to a government soldier recount how he raped women when he was a rebel fighter when I was in eastern Congo in 2009. (See video here.)

But the idea that more than a fifth of women have experienced sexual violence at the hands of their intimate partners – at least according to the study – reminds me of the words of a Harvard doctor I interviewed for that story.

"Rape is becoming part of the culture," said Michael Van Rooyen, the director of Harvard's Humanitarian Initiative and one of the foremost experts on rape in the Congo.

That was one of my takeaways from my time there in 2009.

The desensitization to sexual violence that the war there has wrought was made all too clear when one husband told me why he kicked his wife out of the house after she had been raped: Other men would laugh at him for having a "defiled" wife.

And, now, the finding that husbands or partners – not just rebels or soldiers – are responsible for a significant amount of Congo's sexual violence appears to emphasize just how deeply ingrained in the culture rape has become.

Untangling that will take some doing. Changing a culture is never quick or easy.

--- Editor's note: The original version misstated the percent of women who have experienced sexual violence from an intimate partner.

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