This blog is an update on a blog written in 2011 on the ongoing crisis in Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo, with women and girls continuing to face sexual attacks.
“We were eighteen women and eight small children in a cell. Men came all the time to demand sex from women. They had different uniforms, blue, khaki, black...They shared us among them, in turns… If you refused they beat you with whips. They raped us inside the cell and told us simply to close our eyes. The children who were with us cried a lot.” —Congolese migrant detained in a jail in Angola
This horrifying account describes an ongoing cycle of human rights violations and alarming violence against women and girls in Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Many of the attacks are against Congolese who had fled to Angola and are now being detained and thrown out of the country. This violence has become a fact of life for many undocumented women and girls.
This month, Human Rights Watch released “If You Come Back We Will Kill You.”This report describes an alarming pattern of human rights violations by members of Angolan security forces against Congolese migrants. The group’s deputy Africa director Leslie Lefkow said, “Angola has a right to expel irregular migrants, but this does not justify denying them basic rights. Torture, beatings and rape and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment violate both Angola’s law and international law.”
The report states that detained women and girls have been victims of “sexual abuse, including rape, sexual exploitation, and being forced to witness sexual abuse of other women and girls.” They have also suffered “beatings, degrading and inhumane treatment, arbitrary arrests, and denial of due process.” After years of interviews in both nations’ capitals and along their shared border, the report found that the Angolan authorities have failed to investigate the allegations properly. The report further criticizes Angola for failing to fulfill its promises to ratify international conventions on torture, migrants’ rights and human trafficking.
Beginning in 1975, many Angolans sought refuge in neighboring DRC from Angola’s 30-year civil war, which ended in 2002. Over the past decade, Congolese have fled to Angola to escape violence and economic hardship, and many have found work in the informal diamond mining industry there. In 2003, Angola initiated mass expulsions of Congolese citizens, and DRC responded in kind. Tensions between the two countries over oil rights and disputed borders have further strained relations between the former allies.
Despite an October 2009 agreement by both governments to immediately halt the expulsions, the practice has not only continued but has grown increasingly violent. According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), more than 12,000 Congolese civilians were expelled from Angola in just four months in 2010, and in 2011, more than 100,000 Congolese immigrants were expelled.
While expulsions have become commonplace over the past ten years, the surge in sexual violence committed against civilians during expulsions is truly alarming. At the end of 2010, UNICEF reported that more than 650 women and girls had been raped during expulsions from Angola between September and October 2010. And according to the International Committee for the Development of People, just over 1,000 Congolese reported being raped or otherwise sexually assaulted by Angolan security forces during expulsions in May 2011.
In addition to being gang raped, victims have reported being locked up and tortured by Angolan security forces. Public strip searches and body cavity searches conducted without proper protection are routinely reported. These egregious violations of human rights are made worse by the fact that access to deportation and detention sites in Angola, where much of the violence occurs, has been limited.
It’s Time for Action
Much needs to be done to protect the safety of vulnerable women and girls, whose precarious situation during expulsions makes them easy targets for sexual violence. The risks are high: they have few community structures to protect them and their lack of documentation puts them at the mercy of Angolan officials. Women and girls who are being expelled from the country will continue to fall victim to sexual violence unless immediate measures are taken to prevent these serious human rights violations.
Learn more about gender-based violence and what the Women’s Refugee Commission is doing to prevent it and to protect women and girls at risk.