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Surging conflict in DRC drives sexual assault against displaced women

Women gather in a refugee camp in Goma, east of the Democratic Republic of Congo   -  
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Democratic Republic Of Congo

Hundreds of thousands of women and girls have been displaced over the past year in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo amid fighting by more than 130 armed groups.

As drawn-out conflicts continue to spiral, instances of sexual violence by armed men against displaced women, many living in camps, are climbing rapidly, according to French aid group Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF, or Doctors without Borders).

MSF says more than twice as many women in recent months have sought treatment for sexual assault in some displacement camps outside the eastern city of Goma, where shelters are little more than plastic sheets.

One survivor of sexual violence is a 42-year-old mother of four, who was abandoned by her husband after she became disabled in a motorcycle accident several years ago.

She recounts how a hooded man burst into her tent while her children were out searching for food, raping her in the displacement camp where she had fled to from the country's east.

Now, she says, she hesitates to let her children leave her side, and lives in fear of the same thing happening again.

The frightening trend underscores the consequences for women and girls of the perpetual state of war in the east of the African nation, where conflict has simmered for nearly three decades.

The United Nations estimates that more than 130 armed groups are active in the country's northeast, each vying for land or resources while some have formed to protect their communities.

More than four million people were displaced within Congo because of conflict in 2022, the most in Africa and second in the world only to Ukraine, according to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center.

And of the nearly 100,000 people who arrived at displacement sites near the northeastern city of Goma in July, nearly 60% were women and girls, according to the International Organization for Migration.

Sexual violence has long been used as a weapon of war by armed fighters in the region and in Bulengo and nearby displacement sites, an average of 70 sexual assault victims each day visit clinics run by MSF.

MSF treated 1,500 female victims of sexual violence in July across just three displacement camps outside Goma, which is more than double the number in May, the organization said in a report released on September 18.

Survivors and aid workers say displacement rips people from their livelihoods and leaves women and girls susceptible to assault, while conditions at the camps leave them more vulnerable to abuse.

Shelters are little more than plastic sheets, with no way of securing them from intruders, while armed men often lurk outside the camps, where women and girls are forced to venture out to find firewood and other necessities.

Another rape survivor says she worries for the safety of her children and is afraid to see them venture outside the camp, worried that they may become the victims of sexual violence too.

Celine Luanda, a community women's outreach worker, says it is important to raise awareness of the problem and inform people they could seek help at a health centre.

MSF, along with United Nations agencies and other local organizations, help provide medical services, psychological treatment, latrines, and other measures to improve conditions for victims of sexual violence.

But their role as providers of medical assistance and community sensitization is limited.

For hundreds of thousands of other displaced women, the escalating armed conflict stands in the way of a return to normal life.

The two women interviewed by The Associated Press said they thought each day about how they could go back to farming in their village.

And each night they fear for their safety.

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