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Helping girls caught up in the violence of the DR Congo

Over the last nine months, around three million people have left their homes due to the conflict in the eastern region of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The upsurge in fighting has also caused a dramatic rise in the number of rapes reported in the region. The majority of rape victims in the DR Congo are girls aged between eight and 17 years.

The BBC website highlights the work of one gynaecologist working in Lemera, south of Bukavu. Denis Mukwege and his colleagues specialise in treating rape cases at their hospital. Funded by the UN’s child agency, UNICEF and other donors, it’s not uncommon for the hospital’s 350 beds to be filled mainly by rape victims. These patients often require specialist surgery and psychological care. In addition to this care, the unit aims to ensure young women can look after themselves in the longer term, by helping them develop new skills or putting girls back into school. Speaking to the BBC about the recent increase in rape victims over the last year, Dr Mukwege says that the rise is “linked entirely to the war situation” as militia groups target women en masse to scare whole communities into abandoning their homes, fields and resources.

Girls are especially vulnerable to sexual abuse in the DR Congo. But they also face other threats from the escalation in fighting. Though girls taken by armed groups are often used as sex slaves, some become child soldiers. According to a January briefing by the World Bank, ‘Children in Emergency and Crisis Situations’, there are an estimated 12,500 girls in the DR Congo who are being used as combatants.

However, the report highlights how disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration (DDR) programmes have been designed for helping males and rarely address the needs of girls. The briefing further explains that girls are also less visible to such programmes, because many hide their association with armed groups. They do this mainly to avoid the stigma attached to any involvement with armed groups, particularly because a girl’s value in traditional communities of the DR Congo is defined by her purity and marriageability. Girls often therefore try to conceal their past with armed groups.

Speaking to IRIN, the head of a DDR programme for the UN in the DR Congo said “boys with guns are easier to see and easier to fear”. It is therefore common for reintegration programmes to ignore girls on the assumption that they “don’t present the same threat”. Therefore, unless girls have physical injuries or mental scarring which marks them out for the kind of hospital treatment provided at Lemera, all too often girls used by armed groups go without any help or support.

Laurinda Luffman signature