Women in the war-torn region of Darfur are suffering rising levels of sexual abuse in the refugee camps that have sprung up to house the hundreds of thousands of civilians escaping spiralling violence in the region.
In Darfur's largest displaced camp, Kalma, more than 200 women have been sexually assaulted in the past five weeks, according to figures released by the International Rescue Committee (IRC).
"This is a massive spike in figures," said the IRC's Kurt Tjossem. "We are used to hearing of two to four incidents of sexual assault per month in Kalma camp." The situation is so dire that about 300 desperate women recently convened a meeting pleading for help from the outside world, in particular from African Union troops, who are meant to protect refugees both from the roaming Janjaweed militias responsible for the current conflict and from violence inside the refugee camps.
Aid agencies warn that Darfur's women are particularly vulnerable to sexual assault as they walk vast distances to search for firewood. Janjaweed militias will almost certainly kill any men leaving the camps, the IRC said, forcing women to risk the highly dangerous task. "We have chosen to risk being raped rather than let the men risk being killed," one woman from Kalma said.
Campaigners complain that the AU forces have failed adequately to protect women as they collect fuel by cutting back on the number of so-called "firewood patrols". Since April, AU forces in Kalma have accompanied firewood patrols only once.
Since 2003, at least 50,000 people have been killed and more than a million made homeless in the Darfur region. The UN Security Council is due to meet on Monday to discuss a draft resolution aimed at alleviating the crisis.