UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs
DRC: UNICEF envoy Jessica Lange deplores "unspeakable brutality"
NAIROBI, 11 August 2003 (IRIN) - UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) Goodwill Ambassador Jessica Lange said on Monday that the world could no longer ignore the atrocities, including systematic rape, being inflicted daily on women and children in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).
"Of the women and children who survive the stunning brutality, the physical, emotional and psychological damage will last a lifetime," the US actress said in a statement issued at the end of her recent three-day mission to the DRC. "The world must stop the horror and help the survivors. And those responsible must be brought to justice."
"Rape and sexual violence are not collateral damage, nor are they inevitable in wartime: they are war crimes, and perpetrators must be held accountable by their communities, by the transitional government and by the international community through the International Criminal Court," UNICEF Executive Director Carol Bellamy added.
UNICEF recalled that women and girls were often attacked while engaging in everyday activities such as cultivating fields, collecting firewood or walking to the market. It said boys were not immune to rape, either; in fact, sexual violence against boys and the elderly appeared to be on the increase.
"It is overwhelming to witness their tremendous humanity in the face of such unspeakable brutality, and the courage and strength with which they are facing the future," Lange said.
According to UNICEF, Lange's mission focused primarily on childhood vaccination, demobilised child soldiers, and sexual violence against women and its transmission of HIV/AIDS.
Lange, who began her career as a fashion model before moving into acting, was the first actress to receive two Oscar nominations in a single year, for her 1982 roles in the movies "Frances" and "Tootsie". Over the next decade, Lange received best actress nominations three more times for "Sweet Dreams" and "The Music Box", before winning the Oscar for her role in "Blue Sky" in 1994.
According to UNICEF, combatants of all armed groups in the DRC have committed rape and other forms of sexual violence, with such abuses reported to be "widespread and systematic" in eastern DRC. Women and girls were often raped during military operations as a form of punishment for allegedly "supporting the enemy" and to instil shame and fear within the community, while husbands, fathers and children were sometimes forced to watch, UNICEF said. Many rape victims had been abducted and remained missing, it added.
"Rape is an affront to human rights, human decency and human dignity," Bellamy said earlier this year. "The world cannot be silent as rape is used as a weapon of war in eastern DRC. Children as young as five and women as old as 80 are among the victims of this extraordinary cruelty. Those who commit these horrendous crimes must never forget that they are accountable."
Closely connected to the horror of rape is the impact of the HIV/AIDS pandemic, according to UNICEF. "The lethal combination of high rates of HIV among soldiers and massive rape in eastern Congo means a possible death sentence for raped girls and women," it said, citing data from the Panzi hospital in Bukavu, which indicates that approximately 27 percent of rape victims tested positive for HIV, while estimates indicate that 15 percent of the population is infected in eastern DRC.
According to UNICEF, the factors fuelling the spread of HIV include sexual violence, the movement of large numbers of displaced people, the breakdown of normal protective structures, the widespread presence of soldiers (especially from countries with relatively high HIV/AIDS prevalence rates such as Burundi, Rwanda, Uganda and Zimbabwe) and the absence of health care.
The rape of women and children had brought a devastating impact to bear on entire communities, UNICEF said. Children had lost all aspects of their protective environment, with many schools closed; health care facilities were nonexistent; family members had been killed before children's eyes; siblings had been forcibly recruited into armed forces; entire families had been displaced and communities broken up. Many young children had lost years of schooling, were being raised in camps for displaced people, were living on the streets or had been recruited by armed groups, the UN agency added.
According to UNICEF, conflict in the DRC has shattered the lives of countless children and their families: tens of thousands of children have been recruited and are used as combatants, sex slaves, porters and cooks by all parties to the conflict. In some cases, children make up about 35 percent of troops sent to the front lines.
The conflict had also caused a massive breakdown in the economy, causing families to live in conditions of extreme poverty, UNICEF noted. Seventy percent of the population, for example, did not have access to formal health care either, because they were too poor to pay for services or because they were unable to access facilities, it added.
Theme(s): (IRIN) Children, (IRIN) Gender Issues
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