Goma — Carol Bellamy, the executive director of the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF), on Wednesday completed a three-day mission to the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), which highlighted the importance of children's education, especially of girls, and the need to bring an end to rampant crimes of sexual violence against women and girls.
In addition to visiting the capital, Kinshasa, where she launched a national campaign to encourage girls' education, she also visited eastern regions of the vast central African country, where, among other things, she met women and girls who have been victims of sexual violence, crimes which remain rampant despite the inauguration on 30 June of a government of national unity.
IRIN spoke with Bellamy on Wednesday in the eastern DRC town of Goma just before she was due to travel to Accra, Ghana, to take part in a regional conference on The New Partnership for Africa's Development.
You have just completed a three-day visit to the DRC, particularly eastern regions, where you met with a number of women who have been victims of rape. What was your impression of this visit?
I was very pleased to be able to visit the Congo again. I was able to become better familiar with the situations faced by women and girls who have been victims of sexual violence.
I was in the towns of Bunia, Katshele and Fataki in Ituri District, in the northeast, in Kavumu and Murhesa in South Kivu Province, and in Goma in North Kivu Province, where I was able to speak with a group of women who had survived sexual violence.
At present, everyone is speaking of national reconstruction, but this cannot take place without human reconstruction, without investment in human resources. Physical reconstruction will not lead to lasting peace without a serious and significant investment in human resources.
Therefore, it is essential that protection be provided to the women and girls who have unfortunately been victims of violence during the armed conflict in this country.
What does UNICEF plan to do for these victims of sexual violence?
UNICEF has increased its capacity for intervention in eastern DRC. We plan on maintaining and even increasing this in the years to come. I should also add that I was impressed by numerous local initiatives that have been undertaken.
UNICEF is involved in the recuperation, education and rehabilitation of victims of sexual violence through local NGOs, to whom we lend our support. For instance, on Wednesday, I inaugurated a new building built by UNICEF to serve as a centre to care for women. The NGO Doctors on Call for Service has already cared for some 1,500 women in several locations in the east who have been victims of sexual violence. More than 100 of these women were used as sexual slaves, and suffer from urogenital complications.
Sexual violence has continued to be a major problem despite the installation of a national transitional government. You have met with a number of Congolese authorities during your mission. What assurances did they give you that an end would be put to these persistent crimes?
A UNICEF cannot speak for Congolese authorities. I hope that the government of this country will soon restore security and ensure that justice prevails.
As is the case with other UN agencies, UNICEF will lend its support to this enterprise, but it is the responsibility of the government to restore order. UNICEF can only support government efforts in this direction.
However, during this time, those committing sexual violence continue to roam freely in this country. What would you like to see the Congolese authorities do in order to bring an end to this impunity?
Very little is being done to bring an end to this violence. Congolese leaders must restore the authority of the state. We think that it would be most unfortunate if, during this transitional period, those responsible for rape or other crimes against humanity are not, at least in the long run, brought to justice. While we may not know the individuals responsible for these crimes, we do know to which armed groups they belong and who their leaders are.
On Monday in Kinshasa, you launched a national campaign to promote girls' education [see earlier IRIN story, "UNICEF launches 'All Girls to School' campaign", at http://www.irinnews.org/report.asp?ReportID=38451]. Will this campaign also include girls living in remote regions of the country?
Even if the campaign cannot immediately manage to get 100 percent of Congolese children in school, we are convinced that it will create an environment that will encourage children's education.
Furthermore, the installation of latrines and provision of clean water to schools will encourage children to go to school. At the same time, such efforts will also provide an opportunity to educate children about hygiene.
UNICEF's contribution will include the provision of teaching materials to at least 2,000 schools. This support will help to reduce school fees that parents must pay.
During your mission, you also visited community nutrition centres, as well as centres for the training of former child soldiers. What does UNICEF plan to do in this domain?
As you know, following the armed conflict in this country, major efforts are under way to demobilise various categories of combatants. UNICEF will lend its efforts to the demobilisation of children. This is no small affair. There are also, for example, girls who have been victims of sexual violence, even within their own villages. These girls will need support.
Almost the same holds true for boys. Certain of them were combatants and committed atrocities near their own villages. Others were far away from their villages. Different modalities will be put in place for each type of child.
What will UNICEF be doing to help child soldiers?
The exact nature of our contribution must be determined in consultation with other agencies. However, we do have a great deal of experience in this domain from other countries. This will help us in domains such as education, training, health and reunification of families, all areas in which we have expertise.