Harvard Public Health NOW

May 23, 2008

HHI Seeks to Understand Shocking Epidemic

In the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), women and girls are facing an epidemic of sexual terrorism. Women are raped in their own homes. Some are killed by their attackers, while others are kidnapped for sexual slavery. Human Rights Watch estimates that thousands of women and girls have been raped in just the past year.

Bukavu (2_bukavu.jpg)

Bukavu, DRC, is home to Panzi Hospital, where hundreds of sexual assault victims receive treatment.

The assaults are associated with armed conflict in the country. The pattern of sexual terrorism seen in the DRC is more widespread, systematic, and brutal than that seen in other war-torn arenas where rape has been wielded as a weapon, say researchers with the Gender-Based Violence Research Team at the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative (HHI). The Harvard researchers, including team members from HSPH, delivered a lecture on the subject in April in Emerson Hall on the Harvard College campus in Cambridge. The event was co-sponsored by HHI, the Harvard Office of Sexual Assault Prevention and Response, Harvard College Women's Center, and Brigham & Women's Hospital.
A civil war erupted in the DRC in the 1990s in the wake of a genocide in nearby Rwanda and the destabilization of the region. Violence persists, especially in areas controlled by local militias.

For the past year, HHI has partnered with Panzi Hospital in South Kivu Province in the DRC. The hospital admits 10 to 12 new rape victims daily, according to HHI. It is not uncommon for there to be 450 sexual assault victims among the hospital's patients at any given time.

HHI researcher and Boston emergency medicine physician Susan Bartels described to the gathering how she reviewed the medical charts of 1,021 patients admitted to Panzi Hospital in 2006 for rape-related injuries, looking for any common patterns in the assaults. She and her colleagues found that three-quarters of the attacks were gang rapes, and most occurred at night in the woman's home. More than half of the women raped were married or widowed. Most of the victims were illiterate.

Jocelyn Kelly, a master's student in population and international health at HSPH, described her studies of the social fallout from sexual violence. Through interviews and focus groups in the DRC, Kelly has learned that nearly half the rape victims surveyed waited more than a year before seeking help. They described various obstacles to receiving timely treatment, including fear, poverty, the challenges of travel, and social stigma. A third of the women surveyed reported that their families had rejected them after they were attacked.

"Rape is fundamentally changing the way society is put together in Eastern Congo," Kelly said. "If women are rejected and vilified for being survivors, but rape is also becoming common, this really speaks to the fact that this is an absolutely unsustainable situation."

More information on the HHI Panzi Hospital Project is available.

—Amy Roeder. Photo by John Paul Doguin.