LEICESTER, United Kingdom – Every year, it’s estimated that over 400,000 women are raped every year in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Since longtime dictator Mobutu Sese Seko was ousted as president in 1997, the central African country of over 90 million people has been mired in conflict, often funded by other countries seeking to exploit Congo’s vast natural resources.

Over 6 million people are estimated to have been killed, and the country is still home to numerous militias and other armed gangs – civilians, especially women, are often seen as easy targets.

In 2010, Margot Wallstrom, the UN’s special representative on sexual violence in conflict, called the DR Congo the “rape capital of the world.”

This Lent, Catholics in Scotland are being asked to help the victims of sexual violence in the Congo through the Wee Box campaign sponsored by the Scottish Catholic International Aid Fund (SCIAF).

“Armed groups fight for control of resources such as the precious minerals used in our smart phones. They use sexual violence and the threat of HIV to terrify and control communities. Rape is a weapon of war, used to show power and to shame and humiliate the victims,” a statement from SCIAF says.

“Tens of thousands of women have been left injured and traumatized. Survivors are stigmatized and even disowned by their husbands, families and communities. This has to stop.”

SCIAF’S Ian Dunn told Crux that money raised in the Wee Box appeal will provide thousands of women “with healthcare, surgery and trauma counselling, legal support to prosecute their attackers and help to become financially independent so they can support themselves and their families.”

In a country rife with ethnic and political rivalries, the Catholic Church is seen as the only respected national institution in Congo and provides much of the country’s social infrastructure. SCIAF partners with local Catholic charities to provide help.

“There are around 35 million Catholics in the DRC, around half the total population. The church operates an extensive network of hospitals and schools and provides many essential services,” Dunn told Crux.

“SCIAF’s partners in the DRC are agencies like CDJP Bukavu, the Justice and Peace commission of the Archdiocese of Bukavu, a recognized authority in promoting human rights and gender equality,” he said.

The UK government has also pledged to match the contributions made during the campaign, meaning SCIAF will be able to help more Congolese women.

SCIAF’s Chief Executive, Alistair Dutton said the money raised “will help many thousands of vulnerable people in some of the poorest countries in the world overcome the challenges they face and work their way out of poverty.”

“The money from the UK government will help 4,000 women in the Democratic Republic of Congo whose lives have been devastated by sexual violence. They will be able to get the help they need to recover fully and rebuild their lives,” Dutton continued.

During the Feb. 26 launch of the Wee Box campaign in Glasgow, UK International Development Secretary Anne-Marie Trevelyan said SCIAF’s appeal is helping thousands of women in the DR Congo affected by sexual violence.

“It gives them healthcare, counselling and support to be financially independent. This year, UK aid is matching pound for pound every donation given to the appeal by the generous British public. It means their support will go twice as far in helping these women,” she said.

Dunn told Crux the annual Wee Box campaign takes place every Lent in Scotland.

“Supporters give up something for Lent, and pop the money they’ve saved into a Wee Box, which they return to SCIAF after Easter. The money is used to help improves the lives of some of the world’s poorest people,” he said.

“The Wee Box Appeal has become a staple feature of Lent in households across Scotland. It is a popular and simple way of fundraising,” Archbishop Phillip Tartaglia of Glasgow said at the launch event.

His counterpart from Edinburgh, Archbishop Leo Cushley also praised the “incredible enthusiasm and dedication” shown by Scottish Catholics every year for the campaign, adding it “deeply inspires me.”

The campaign received an added boost when Ricky Ross and Lorraine McIntosh, the vocalists for the hit Scottish pop group Deacon Blue, added their voices to the campaign.

The two recently visited the DR Congo, met with victims of sexual violence.

“The scale and brutality of sexual violence in eastern DR Congo is extremely disturbing,” McIntosh said. “The lives of thousands of women and their families are being torn apart.”

Follow Charles Collins on Twitter: @CharlesinRome

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