DAKAR, Senegal—The number of rapes carried out by civilians in eastern Congo has increased by 17-fold in the last few years, according to a study released Thursday that says sexual assaults long perpetrated by armed groups are spreading across the population.
The study, commissioned by the British aid group Oxfam, was carried out by experts from Harvard University and examined more than 4,000 cases from 2004 to 2008 at the Panzi Hospital in the eastern Congo city of Bukavu.
Armed groups -- including the army and Congolese and Rwandan militias -- have raped tens of thousands of women in the war-ravaged nation, and are still feared by the population. But the research found that 38 percent of rapes were committed by civilians in 2008, compared to less than 1 percent in 2004.
"This study confirms what has only been reported anecdotally until now: Sexual violence has become more normal in civilian life," said Susan Bartels, chief researcher from the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative. "The scale of rape over Congo's years of war has made this crime seem more acceptable."
Violence first erupted in Congo after the 1994 Rwandan genocide spilled war across the border. U.N. peacekeepers have been deployed in the vast nation since 1999 to help stabilize it, but thousands are raped each year and sporadic fighting has continued.
Congo President Joseph Kabila has asked the U.N. to draw up a schedule to withdraw its 20,000 peacekeeping mission by 2011, though some senior diplomats and U.N. officials have said they are reluctant to do so. A U.N. Security Council delegation is due in Congo later this week.
"Rape of this scale and brutality is scandalous," said Krista Riddley, who directs humanitarian policy for Oxfam. "This is a wake-up call at a time when plans are being discussed for U.N. peacekeepers to leave the country. The situation is not secure if a woman can't even sleep safely in her own bed at night."
The report -- entitled "Now, the World is Without Me" -- said few places were safe for victims. About 56 percent of sexual assaults surveyed were carried out by armed men in what should have been the safety of home -- in the presence of the victim's families, including their children. Around 16 percent were reported in fields, and 15 percent in forests.
Incidents of sexual slavery also were reported by 12 percent of women surveyed, with some women being held captive for years.
The report said the number of rapes spiked during military activities, with more than 9,000 people -- including men and boys -- raped in 2009 as the government and its Rwandan military allies carried out operations against Rwandan militia groups still operating on Congolese soil.