More than 400,000 women are raped in the Democratic Republic of Congo every year, according to a study by U.S. researchers, but the United Nations has expressed doubt over the findings.
Congo, which has a population of around 60 million, has endured decades of conflict, characterised by the use of brutal sexual violence against civilians, with mass rapes still regular in the largely lawless eastern provinces.
The study, which was released Wednesday and used nationwide data the government collected between 2006 and 2007, found that on average 1,100 women were raped every day in the vast central African country.
More than a fifth of women surveyed nationwide said they had been the victims of sexual violence at the hands of their husbands or partners, it said.
"Rates across the country are high, nowhere is a woman in the Congo safe from sexual violence," Tia Palermo, one of the authors of the study published in The American Journal of Public Health, told Reuters.
She said they were particularly surprised by the high levels of rape in areas not directly affected by fighting.
The study used information from 3,400 women and then used the figure to calculate the national statistics, Palermo said. She said the figures were the most accurate yet published but were still likely to be a conservative estimate.
However, the validity of the research has been questioned by Beatrix Attinger Colijn, the head of the U.N. team tackling sexual violence in the country, who said the sample group was too small and that the research did not reflect local and cultural factors that could affect rates of sexual violence.
"This seems a limited type of study, we try to get away from numbers and give a more analytical context of why sexual violence happens," she said, adding that statistics from five years ago are not relevant to the current situation.
Attinger Colijn said that emphasising the issue of sexual violence was a distraction from the wider problems of insecurity and violence that still beset the country, with donors channelling vast sums of money into projects focused on rape.
"We don't need figures like this to know sexual violence is a problem, there are many other types of violence and human rights issues that need to be tackled," she added.
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