More than 3,600 women, children and men were subjected to rape and other sexual violence in Congo over a four-year period by the country's defense and security forces or armed rebels, according to a U.N. report released Wednesday.
The report by the U.N.'s human rights office in Congo said the period from 2010 through 2013 "has been characterized by the persistence of incidents of sexual violence that were extremely serious due to their scale, their systematic nature and the number of victims."
About half the 3,645 attacks were by rebel groups and half by government forces, though the percentages varied year by year, the report said.
The victims ranged in age from 2 to 80 years old, and 73 percent were women, 25 percent were children and 2 percent were men, it said.
Violent sexual crimes were committed during attacks on villages, and alongside killings, abductions and looting — and many women were raped in their homes, while working on farms, going to market or fetching water, the report said.
In some incidents in volatile eastern Congo, "large-scale rape has been used as a weapon of war or to punish civilians for their perceived collaboration with a rival party to the conflict in the struggle for power over areas rich in natural resources," it said.
In recent years, the Congolese government has made commitments to address impunity for sexual violence crimes.
Zainab Hawa Bangura, the U.N. special representative on sexual violence in conflict, signed a communique on March 30 with Congo's Prime Minister Matata Ponya Mapon in which he reiterated the government's commitment to preventing and combating sexual violence in conflict — and to combating impunity.
Bangura stressed at Wednesday's news conference that combating sexual violence couldn't be done in isolation.
"If you don't respect your women in peacetime, you cannot protect them in conflict," she said.
The U.N. said it has observed "slow but steady progress" in prosecutions, including against 39 soldiers accused of crimes against humanity including rape stemming from alleged sexual violence against at least 102 women and 33 girls in and around the town of Minova in eastern Congo in November 2012.
But the U.N. said most cases "are never investigated or prosecuted, and very few are reported."
It cited fears of stigmatization, retaliation and the costs for victims and the difficulties of arresting perpetrators and deficiencies in Congo's judicial and prison systems.
"Unfortunately the political will at the highest level is not sufficiently translated on the ground," U.N. human rights chief Navi Pillay told a news conference.
"Not all Congolese authorities are prepared or equipped to conduct thorough investigations into all cases of sexual violence and to prosecute the most senior officers."
The Associated Press