Source: AllAfrica
The recurrent conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo's (DRC) North Kivu province has led to an alarming rise in rapes and violence against women and girls, the United Nations refugee agency said today.

"Our protection monitoring teams have registered 705 cases of sexual violence in the region since January, including 619 cases of rape," said a spokesperson for the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

"During the same period in 2012, our staff had registered 108 cases. The survivors of SGBV [sexual and gender-based violence] included 288 minors and 43 men."

Renewed fighting around the city of Goma between the army and the rebel group M23 has forced some 7,000 people to flee their homes over the past two weeks alone.

The majority are women and children as well as young boys fleeing forced recruitment. Meanwhile, fighting this month in North Kivu's Kamango area between the Allied Democratic Forces, a Ugandan-based rebel group, and the army has displaced an estimated 14,000 civilians.

UNHCR said it was worried that the resurgence in violence over the past weeks would increase the danger for women in the region, including those living in camps.

According to the agency, most cases of sexual violence are committed by armed men. Out of the 705 cases reported since the beginning of the year, 434 were perpetrated by armed elements.

Official UN figures also show that recorded cases of sexual violence in North Kivu soared from 4,689 cases in 2011 to 7,075 in 2012. Many more cases remain unreported.

UNHCR said it is currently working closely with other humanitarian organizations and the authorities to respond and strengthen monitoring of sexual violence.

The agency has helped run courses for dozens of police officers on how to prevent sexual violence and handle rape cases. It has also created community centres and trained focal points to identify sexual violence cases and refer victims for health care and psycho-social support.

In addition, the agency is promoting the use of alternative fuel to firewood in a bid to reduce the exposure of women to sexual violence when they go out to look for wood. The current phase of this project will benefit 2,000 households in camps near Goma, the agency said.

UNHCR is also working to provide shelter and basic humanitarian aid to those that have been newly displaced.

While many are staying in schools and churches in the northern part of Goma, UNHCR and partners are transferring them to existing camps where they can get access to basic services.

In Kamago, humanitarian access is a challenge as the situation remains tense in the area. Many displaced persons are facing food shortages because they cannot go to the fields to collect their crops.

Access to water and health services is also extremely difficult as 80 per cent of the health centres in the area have been looted.

UNHCR said it is also alarmed by reports of human rights violations in the area, including the murder of at least 15 civilians, abductions, forced labour, beatings and illegal taxation.

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