Tens of thousands of civilians fled in fear this week as the armed group M23 marched into the eastern Congolese city of Goma – worsening an already dire human rights situation.
Following the city’s fall to the M23 on Tuesday, many more civilians are fleeing and are left with no assistance in an area where they are at significant risk of being caught in crossfire as hostilities intensify.
Amnesty International has documented numerous crimes under international law and other human rights violations committed in the course of fighting between M23 and the Democratic Republic of Congo’s (DRC) army in recent months.
For the past 15 years, civilians caught up in the conflict have suffered a range of abuses – women and girls in particular have being targeted, with rape and other forms of sexual violence being widely reported.
“I was raped while I was collecting wood,” one woman from North Kivu province’s Rutshuru region recently told Amnesty International delegates when they visited her internally displaced persons (IDP) camp outside Goma, the provincial capital.
The incident took place after she had fled to the camp in July of this year to escape clashes between the M23 and the Congolese army. The woman had walked nearly an hour from the camp to collect firewood when she was approached by a man in civilian clothes, brandishing a machete.
“I was cutting wood when I saw a man chopping wood. I don’t know if he was a lumberjack or just a bandit…[he] had a machete. He told me he loves me and I answered I don’t,” she said.
“He told me I don’t want to marry you, I just want to have sex with you. So he took me by force – he even injured me. He said if I scream he will hit me with his machete.”
Stories like this are not uncommon in the eastern DRC, where the armed conflict has forced many women and girls to flee several times – often without adult male relatives, which places them at further risk of sexual violence. Some have also reported sexual harassment from security forces.
In a bid to end such gender-based violence in North Kivu, Amnesty International has called on the DRC authorities to ensure its security forces are properly trained and fully vetted, especially in areas where civilians are at heightened risk of attack from armed groups.
The United Nations Security Council has recognized the continued “widespread sexual and gender-based violence” in eastern DRC.
But it is now being urged to do more to bring an end to such violence against women and girls in the conflict in DRC, and in all conflicts.
As part of a global 16 Days of Activism campaign to end conflict-related sexual violence – like the violence in DRC – thousands of Amnesty International supporters worldwide are sending letters to Security Council members.
Among their key demands is to a call to bolster the UN peacekeeping forces around IDP camps and other areas in the DRC that lack the necessary security presence to ensure the effective protection of civilians.
Militarism and gender violence
Sexual and gender-based violence of the kind evident in eastern DRC is widespread around the world, occurring both in and out of conflict situations. Militarism fuels these violations, which have a disproportionate and long-lasting effect on women and girls.
Beginning on 25 November, Amnesty International supporters worldwide will join the global 16 Days of Activism against Gender Violence Campaign to challenge militarism which heightens the risk of gender-based violence.
“Militarism privileges certain forms of masculinity with grave consequences for the equality, safety and security of women and girls, and of men who do not conform to conventional gender roles,” said Madhu Malhotra, Director of Amnesty International’s Gender, Sexuality and Identity Programme.
“In the context of the fighting in eastern DRC and countless other conflicts and crisis situations around the world, militarism – as an important root cause of sexual and gender-based violence – must be challenged and adequate safeguards put in place to protect women and girls affected during and after war.”
Besides being prevalent during an active armed conflict like that in eastern DRC, militarization and its negative effects often precede fighting and continue to be felt as a legacy of war.
Amnesty International’s 16 Days of Activism campaign includes five country actions in five different regions to convey the global dimension of gender violence and militarism. Alongside the DRC, activists will highlight the following situations:
Colombia: The government is being pressed to support an initiative currently in Congress to guarantee access to justice to victims of sexual violence – especially the thousands of victims who were targeted during the country’s longstanding armed conflict.
Egypt: A letter to the Minister of Interior calls for security forces to issue a total prohibition on the use of all forms of sexual and gender-based violence, after women protesters were targeted with forced “virginity tests” in detention last year.
Indonesia: A web action urges the government to set up a national truth commission to adequately address sexual and gender-based crimes against women and girls that took place over several decades during the rule of Suharto and the reformasi period after 1998.
Japan: A letter to the Minister for Foreign Affairs urges the government to apologize and accept full responsibility – including legal responsibility – for the Japanese military’s systematic practice of sexually enslaving women throughout the Asia-Pacific region from 1932 until the end of World War II.
In addition, activists are targeting their national ministries of foreign affairs to call for a reference on gender-based violence to be kept in the text of the global Arms Trade Treaty – which enters its final round of negotiations at the UN in New York in March 2013.
“Sadly, no region of the world has been immune from experiencing sexual and gender-based violence in the context of militarism,” said Malhotra.
“We want to make sure that survivors of sexual violence and wartime rape have full access to justice, truth and prompt and effective reparation. Our 16 Days of Activism campaign will also send a clear message that women and girls must never be targeted for such violence anywhere or at anytime, including during protests and detention.”
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