Bujumbura — Lost in their thoughts, the women sit patiently on benches as they wait for assistance at the offices of the League Iteka, a Burundian human rights group.
Among the 10 or so women at the offices are two young girls. "One of them was raped by a close family friend - and she is only 13," an official at Iteka said. "Now she will have to live with the memory all her life."
Located in a downtown district of the Burundian capital, the human rights group is one of the organisations trying to help victims of rampant human rights abuses in the country, including sexual abuse.
Each day, about 30 people - most of them poor women and young girls - come to seek assistance. Cases of sexual abuse constitute nearly half the entire caseload and are often the most traumatic. From January to October 2007, the organisation handled 301 cases of rape.
"The cases that we handle are only those reported to us," Jean Pierre Kisamare, League Iteka deputy executive secretary and head of information, said. "There are many, many others that are not reported."
"They each have a different story, but all are victims of abuse seeking help," one Iteka official said. "For example, the elderly lady sitting over there was raped by rebel soldiers a few days ago. She is back from hospital to seek more help."
Then there is 15-year-old Belize (not real name), who can no longer do basic chores such as washing clothes because a rapist dipped her hands in scalding water. Now pregnant from the rape, Belize is unable to figure out how she will support her child.
Twenty-year-old Matilda (not real name) was raped then beaten and left for dead in a gutter. Her body was found by dogs whose barking attracted the attention of passers-by. Now undergoing psychiatric treatment, she is still traumatised by her ordeal.
"The trends are worrying," said Kisamare. "Over the last five months, we have had more cases resulting from the fighting between the FNL [Forces nationales de libération] and government troops."
Aid workers in Bujumbura point fingers at the rebels as one group of perpetrators. Others they accuse include government soldiers and the police, civilians, neighbours and school authorities.
Since the return to Bujumbura of FNL leader Agathon Rwasa from exile on 30 May, however, rebel activities have slackened. "There has been an improvement in the last two weeks," Kisamare told IRIN on 4 June. "Before that, a lot of violations [rapes] occurred involving them."
Throughout the 15 years of conflict in Burundi, violence against women, especially sexual abuse and rape, has been a widespread phenomenon, according to international human rights organisations and the United Nations.
Between 2004 and 2006, for example, an average of 1,346 women annually reported cases of abuse to aid agency Médecins sans Frontières (MSF); 26 per week.
The war may have largely ended, but rape continues to be a major problem, according to aid workers.
"Sexual violence against women and children remains widespread," UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said in a 15 May report to the Security Council. "A significant increase in the incidence of rape has been recorded since the beginning of 2008."
The report criticised the government, noting that: "the president's commitment and that of his government to stem impunity and punish national security personnel for human rights abuses has, in some cases, yet to be translated into concrete actions."
Government officials said they were trying to do something; at least 20 police officers were dismissed by the president in December 2007 for involvement in abuses, with several defence force personnel also being prosecuted.
"Ending impunity for those guilty of sexual violence and other egregious violations against women and children deserves the highest priority," Ban told the Security Council.
More child victims
According to Amnesty International, the majority of reported rape victims are girls under the age of 18. The perpetrators in many cases escape prosecution and punishment by the state, giving Burundi an extremely low rate of successful prosecutions for sexual crimes.
Iteka found that in other cases, the victims chose to remain silent, often out of fear of social stigmatisation.
"Most victims are scared to talk about rape. Married women, for example, fear to speak out because the husband could throw them out of the house if he found out that she had been raped," Audace Gahiga, of Iteka's gender project, said.
Other victims resort to traditional and informal dispute resolution systems, often negotiating and agreeing on compensation from the perpetrator or the family of the perpetrator.
According to League Iteka officials, the majority of cases of sexual violence reported to their offices involved 10- to 18-year-old girls, reflecting an increase in the number of child victims such as a 12-year-old victim whose father accepted 60,000 francs (US$60) from the perpetrator to drop the matter.
Cases of incest where children are raped by their grandfathers, fathers and uncles are also becoming more frequent; most of which are sorted out within the family. Many of these victims are exposed to a high risk of disease infection, including HIV/AIDS, despite Burundi's relatively low prevalence of 3.3 percent.
Ending impunity for those guilty of sexual violence and other egregious violations against women and children deserves the highest priority
"We have recently seen more and more cases of small children aged two to four years being raped," Kisamare said.
"We thought we were moving forward, but instead we are going back to the past," he said.
Girls and young women are most at risk with 60 percent of reported rapes being committed against minors, according to a 2007 study by Amnesty and a Burundian NGO, Action des Chrétiens pour l'Abolition de la Torture.
"Girls as young as three are the victims of rape today in Burundi," said Arnaud Royer, a researcher at Amnesty.
"Rape is the most reported form of sexual violence in the country, committed by both state and non-state actors, but is becoming more and more prevalent in the home and community."
[ This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations ]