Rape and sexual violence against children and women are spreading in conflict zones in Africa like an epidemic, the U.N. children's agency UNICEF said on Tuesday.
Rape was particularly prevalent in countries suffering both conflicts and natural disasters, deputy executive director Hilde Johnson told a news conference.
Victims in Democratic Republic of Congo ranged from infants to octogenarians, she said. Many suffered genital mutilation as well as rape in the attacks, Johnson added at the launch of a UNICEF appeal to raise $856 million to help children in emergencies in 39 countries this year.
"We have seen that the reported cases of rape and sexual violence doubled within days of the conflict erupting in Kenya," she said. Liberia and the Darfur region of Sudan were other areas where rape was increasingly used as a weapon.
"In some of these countries it has reached epidemic levels," Johnson said. The agency described the problem as an epidemic because the use of rape as a weapon was spreading from armies and militias to civilians in conflicts and civil wars.
"When societies collapse there seems to be a licence to rape in some of these countries. That's why we call it epidemic proportions — it takes a life of its own," she said.
UNICEF's 2008 appeal includes $106 million for Congo. While most of that would go on the provision of standard aid such as food, shelter and water, some was intended to help counter rape, she said.
This included working with the government, army and militias on preventative campaigns, creating safe havens and helping victims with medical and other care.
Johnson said if a peace deal signed in Congo on Jan. 23 holds, aid agencies would gain access to previously unreachable areas of the country and were likely to find many thousands of refugees and other victims in need of care.