Sexual violence has become increasingly pervasive in the east of the Democratic Republic of the Congo where rape has risen 17-fold in the past few years, says a report released on Thursday by Oxfam.

Armed groups including the army and Congolese and Rwandan militias have raped tens of thousands of women in Congo. But the study found that 38 per cent of rapes were committed by civilians in 2008, compared with less than 1 per cent in 2004.

The report, Now, the World is Without Me, said that about 56 per cent of sexual assaults were committed by armed men in homes in the presence of the victim's families, including their children.

About 16 per cent were reported in fields, and 15 per cent in forests.

Incidents of sexual slavery were reported by 12 per cent of women surveyed, with some held hostage for years. The number of rapes increased during military operations. More than 9,000 people, including men and boys, were raped in 2009 as the government and its Rwandan military allies moved against Rwandan militia groups operating on Congolese soil.

The report was commissioned by Oxfam and carried out by Harvard University experts.

More than 4,000 rape victims were interviewed from 2004 to 2008 at Panzi hospital in the eastern Congo city of Bukavu.

Oxfam said the findings of the survey were alarming. — © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2010

More In: Comment | Opinion