For years, the conflict-wracked east of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has been cursed by sexual violence on a scarcely imaginable scale, which has seen it labelled as the 'rape capital of the world' and the 'worst place on earth to be a woman'. Until now, most of the blame has been laid at the feet of the Congolese army and the numerous rebel and militia groups that have roamed the region. But a ground-breaking new report calls this view into question - and concludes that rape is just as prevalent in people's homes as it is in the midst of conflict.
Conducted by Promundo and the Sonke Gender Justice Network around the town of Goma in North Kivu province, the report - Gender relations, sexual violence and the effects of conflict on women and men in North Kivu - found that more than a third of the men surveyed had perpetrated some form of sexual violence and that more than three quarters of them hold deeply alarming beliefs about rape and women's rights.
For example, nearly a third of men believe that women sometimes want to be raped and that when a woman is raped, she may enjoy it. Meanwhile, nearly 50 percent of men think that if a woman does not physically resist when forced to have sex, it is not rape.
So while sexual violence has definitely been used as a weapon of war in eastern Congo, the report makes it clear that it is these kinds of deeply entrenched social and cultural beliefs and attitudes that are largely responsible for the region's appallingly high rates of rape and other sexual attacks. As the report states, 'sexual violence...more often reflects widespread acceptance of patriarchal norms and rape myths that justify and normalize rape, the everyday subordination of women, and men's sense of entitlement to women's bodies'.
However, the study - which is part of the International Men and Gender Equality Survey or IMAGES - also indicates that many men are themselves victims of various forms of violence, including sexual violence, and shows a clear association between exposure to violence during childhood and increased likelihood of subsequently perpetrating acts of sexual violence.
In addition, the study looked at the broader socio-economic picture and confirmed that the majority of the population of the region continues to live in extreme poverty and face multiple vulnerabilities, which in turn create challenges for men and women to fulfil socially expected gender roles.
At least half of the population lives on less than US$1 per day and hunger is an all too common daily reality for respondents - with 40 percent of men and 43 percent of women eating only one meal a day.
In addition to material hardship and hunger, the effects of lack of work and not having enough money to provide for their families are a source of tremendous stress for men and women. Men often feel ashamed and depressed when they are not able to sustain their families. Indeed, 72 percent of men report being ashamed to face their families because of a lack of work, while 78 percent are frequently stressed or depressed because they are unemployed.
"The DRC has frequently been called the 'worst place in the world to be a woman' but the results of our study affirm that the areas around Goma are among the worst places in the world to be a woman or a man," said Dr Gary Barker, Promundo's International Director. "It is only by transforming gender relations, engaging women and men, and combining gender justice with social justice, that true and lasting change will be possible for the women, men and children who call Goma and North Kivu their home."
The findings underscore how critical it is that the Congolese government, UN agencies and other development partners promote and protect women's rights - including by educating men and boys about women's basic human rights - as well as act to end impunity for sexual violence and provide psycho-social services to the women, men and children affected by violence.