Following recent brutal attacks on women by suspected FDLR rebels in South Kivu, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), the international development NGO, Christian Aid is calling for more to be done to accelerate the voluntary demobilisation of armed groups in the vast central African nation.
Of the fifteen women, all mothers, who were abducted and raped by the armed assailants - five were brutally tortured and then beheaded, three survived and were taken to Panzi Hospital in Bukavu for emergency medical care and the remaining seven are still missing, presumed dead.
The attacks took place in February 2010, less than two weeks before the visit of the UK Foreign Office Minister, Baroness Kinnock, to rape survivors at Panzi hospital. Since then the Minister has made commitments to addressing the crisis of impunity surrounding rape in the DRC.
Christian Aid has welcomed this renewed commitment and wants Baroness Kinnock to work with the DRC and Rwandan governments and with the UN to address the underlying causes of insecurity in the Great Lakes region.
This must include increasing political will and material support for the voluntary demobilisation and repatriation of Rwandan FDLR armed groups and refugees, says the NGO - pointing out that many of them have been in the DRC since the aftermath of the 1994 Rwandan genocide.
"With the continued presence of various armed groups, women throughout the region are more vulnerable than ever to reprisals and systematic rape,” explained Shuna Keen, Christian Aid’s Great Lakes analyst.
"Innocent women and young girls continue to be raped by both the Congolese Armed Forces (FARDC) and the Rwandan FDLR and, as a result, many of these women and their subsequent children are HIV positive – the social and psychological effects are devastating and long-term," she added.
Indeed, UNOCHA last year reported that a substantial proportion of the sexual violence in DRC is committed by men in uniform. Most cases of rape in insecure remote areas go unreported, and the survivors are unable to get treatment. This recent attack in South Kivu is unfortunately not an isolated incident, but part of an ongoing, horrifying trend, say analysts.
More than six million civilian lives have been lost in war and genocide in DRC and Rwanda since the early 1990s, with the conflict now the most deadly since the Second World War.
"More can and must be done to encourage voluntary demobilisation and repatriation by FDLR rebels and Rwandan refugees through effective accompaniment, sensitisation and confidence-building measures. The non-military options have not been given enough of a chance," adds Keen.
Over 15 years since the Rwandan genocide, it is estimated that there are still around 90,000 Rwandan refugees living in the volatile region of eastern DRC, as well as many thousands of armed FDLR rebel combatants.
Christian Aid says it believes that the voluntary repatriation of refugees is crucial for building lasting peace in the region, as is the voluntary demobilisation and repatriation of the FDLR.
Observers suggest that the ongoing insecurity in the North and South Kivu regions of DRC which gives rise to systematic sexual violence, is itself the result of deep long-term political crisis in the wider African Great Lakes region.
As a major diplomatic actor and number one bilateral donor to both DRC and Rwanda, Christian Aid wants the UK to use its influence in favour of the peaceful resolution of this crisis, the promotion of civil and human rights and the correct exercise of justice mechanisms.
To mark International Women’s Day 2010, Christian Aid is also urging Baroness Kinnock to draw inspiration from her recent visit to DRC and lead international efforts to accelerate the voluntary demobilisation of armed groups and to address the illegal militarised mining and trade which is a major cause of insecurity in the region.