KINSHASA (Reuters) - Democratic Republic of Congo's first rehabilitation center for victims of sexual violence opened its doors on Friday, weeks after a new spate of mass rapes in its troubled east.
Mass rape has been a characteristic of the conflict in eastern Congo -- a brutal battle over ethnicity and resources -- which was in part triggered when millions of people fled across the border following the Rwandan genocide in 1994.
Although accurate figures are hard to come by, the United Nations estimates at least 160 women are being raped every week in the eastern provinces of North and South Kivu.
The UN-funded "City of Joy" was launched in the eastern town of Bukavu by Eve Ensler, author of the hit play "The Vagina Monologues" about female sexuality. President Joseph Kabila's wife Olive Lembe Kabila is also a backer of the center.
"The opening of the City of Joy is the moment where women of the Congo turn their pain to power. Where they who have suffered so deeply, so invisibly will claim their rights, their bodies and their future," Ensler said at the opening ceremony.
The center will give therapy and training to around 180 women a year to help them rebuild their lives.
Last month over 100 women, men and children were sexually abused in separate attacks carried out by the Congolese army and FDLR rebels in and around the South Kivu town of Fizi.
Dr Nene Rukunghu, who treats victims of sexual violence at the local Panzi Hospital, believed rape was becoming ingrained as part of the culture in the remote east.
"It can be anyone (who rapes): a pastor, a priest, a young man, but very often it's demobilized fighters, continuing the same way of life," she added.
Observers say impunity -- those who commit rape are rarely prosecuted -- adds to the problem. Legal aid group Lawyers Without Borders has urged the government to invest more into the country's creaking and corrupt justice system.
Others argue that reform of army -- a fragmented force made up of poorly trained soldiers and re-integrated rebels -- is key to ending the violence.
"They (the donors) go for easy options like funding human rights training for the military, when the soldiers already know it's not right to rape,' said academic Maria Eriksson Baaz.
A disciplined army that could tackle armed groups and stop preying on local communities is crucial to ending human rights violations in Eastern Congo, she added.