Background: The conflict in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) is the deadliest since World War II. Over a decade of fighting amongst an array of armed groups has resulted in extensive human rights abuses, particularly the widespread use of sexual violence against women.
Methods: Using a mixed-methods approach, we surveyed a non-random sample of 255 women attending a referral hospital and two local non-governmental organizations to characterize their experiences of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV). We then conducted focus groups of 48 women survivors of SGBV to elaborate on survey findings. Quantitative and qualitative data underwent thematic and statistical analysis respectively.
Findings: Of the women surveyed, 193 (75.7%) experienced rape. Twenty-nine percent of raped women were rejected by their families and 6% by their communities. Thirteen percent of women had a child from rape. Widowhood, husband abandonment, gang rape, and having a child from rape were significant risk factors for social rejection. Mixed methods findings show rape survivors were seen as "contaminated" with HIV, contributing to their isolation and over 95% could not access prophylactic care in time. Receiving support from their husbands after rape was protective against survivors' feelings of shame and social isolation.
Interpretation: Rape results not only in physical and psychological trauma, but can destroy family and community structures. Women face significant obstacles in seeking services after rape. Interventions offering long-term solutions for hyper-vulnerable women are vital, but lacking; reintegration programs on SGBV for women, men, and communities are also needed.