Geneva - The Democratic Republic of Congo is working to rein in the sexual violence that has plagued the country for two decades, but rape remains rampant, the UN rights chief Navi Pillay said on Tuesday.
"Sexual and gender-based violence remain alarmingly prevalent, ... both in the eastern provinces and in the rest of the country," Pillay told the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva.
In the conflict areas in the eastern part of DRC, which have been wracked by violence for nearly 20 years, "sexual violence is used as a weapon of war to intimidate local communities and to punish civilians for real or suspected collaboration with rival forces," she lamented.
In her address to a session focussing on how to end the scourge, Pillay noted that the DRC government itself had tallied 26 339 incidents of rape and other gender-based violence in 2011 and 2012 in seven provinces.
Another 15 352 cases were added to the tally last year, Zeinab Hawa Bangura, special UN representative on sexual violence in conflict told the council, pointing to data showing that armed groups committed more than half of the assaults.
"These figures are unlikely to represent all the cases of sexual violence, but they suggest a pattern," Pillay said.
DRC Justice and Human Rights Minister Wivine Mumba Matipa stressed to the council that her country's culture in no way condoned sexual violence, but that rape and other attacks on women were the symptoms of conflicts "mainly imposed on it by neighbouring countries".
Fear of stigmatisation
She stressed that the government had made the fight against such violence a top priority, and was especially rebuilding the country's judicial infrastructure, enabling an increasing number of prosecutions.
The government has gained more control in the conflict-hit areas since a national army offensive, backed by a special UN brigade, forced the powerful M23 rebel group to lay down its arms last November.
But several dozen armed movements - community-based militias, army defectors and rebel forces, both native to the DR Congo and from neighbouring Rwanda and Uganda - remain highly active in the east and are often involved in the struggle to control its wealth of mineral resources.
Pillay hailed the government's "considerable efforts" to rein in the violence against women, while Bagura expressed relief that "sexual violence is no longer a taboo topic for authorities."
But the experts agreed there was still a long way forward, with continued impunity and a lack of compensation and reparation for the victims being among the top concerns.
"Our bodies are still battlefields," Julienne Lusenge, chair of NGO Feminine Solidarity for Integral Peace and Development, told the council, stressing how difficult it was for women to seek treatment or press charges in the first place for fear of stigmatisation, not to mention the dangers of simply making the journey.
"You risk being raped again on the return journey," she said.