A paper was published today in the American Journal of Public Health with a new analysis of sexual violence in the Congo. The conclusion: In 2006, over 400,000 women were raped in the Congo, with rates highest in North Kivu province. In comparison - the country-wide rape rate was 29 rapes per 1,000 women of reproductive age. In the United States, the corresponding rate was 0,5 per 1,000.
We can't really make too many causal arguments on the basis of the study. What is clear is that rates of sexual violence were highest in the conflict-ridden province of North Kivu. Strangely, however, the second worst province was Equateur, where most sexual violence in absolute terms had happened: over 90,000 women in 2006. Other striking facts were that, while the 2006 figures were low for the Kasai Occidental, the lifetime rape rate there was higher than in South Kivu - about 14% of women of reproductive age.
We also can't really say whether sexual violence is getting worse or better since there have not been comparable surveys carried out before and after this one.
The take-home message: This is the first time we have a ballpark figure for sexual violence in the Congo. Previous figures were based on women self-reporting, and ranged between 15,000-17,000 per year. And of course the real take home message is: levels of sexual violence are extremely high. Now the job is to figure out what can be done to address this.
However, these figures are not as surprising as they might seem at first sight. For example, statistics from Maltheser health centers in South Kivu report that 20,517 women and girls were treated for sexual violence over a three year period (2005-2007). That's around 6,500/year based just on reporting to a selection of health centers. This article suggests that 41,000 women were raped in South Kivu in 2006 - not too surprising.
The rates are also by no means exceptional compared with previous studies. An article published in the Journal of the American Medical Association estimated at that around 30 percent of women in the eastern Congo are survivors of conflict-related rape. This study puts that figure at around 12 percent (for women of reproductive age).
There will always be methodological issues with rape statistics. The Congo is a big country, and there is probably wide variation in levels of sexual violence. Women often do not report sexual violence (although that would mean numbers are too low) and the sample size may not be representative.