By Nita Bhalla
NAIROBI, May 20 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Schoolgirls in the Democratic Republic of Congo were raped, forced into marriage and used as human shields by militias who believed they had "magical powers" during violence over a year ago, an investigation by a group of charities said on Monday.
The Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack (GCPEA) said its research into the year-long violence in Congo's central Kasai region, which largely ended in 2017, found that female students suffered multiple abuses by armed groups.
Based on interviews with over 55 students and teachers, the report documents testimonies from survivors and witnesses of how militiamen attacked hundreds of schools - kidnapping girls for sexual slavery, forced marriage and to serve as child soldiers.
"Militias believed in girls' magical powers, and often used them as the first line of defense to rustle their skirts to ward off soldiers with guns," said Diya Nijhowne, GCPEA's executive director, in a statement.
Armed only with a broom or kitchen utensil, young girls were placed on the frontlines, said the report, as they were believed to possess powers which would stop bullets and protect the whole unit in combat. Many children were killed in this way, it added.
The conflict in Kasai - which pitted the Congolese army and allied Bana Mura militia against the Kamuina Nsapu militia - killed up to 5,000 people and forced some 1.5 million people from their homes, according to the United Nations.
Both rebels and government troops committed atrocities such as mass rape and cannibalism in Kasai, U.N. human rights investigators said in a June report, adding that there was "a serious problem of impunity".
In July 2017 a Congolese court convicted seven soldiers for the murder of suspected militia members in Kasai after a video showed soldiers shooting people, some of them young women, at point-blank range.
"The militia leaders gave us girls a broom, which was considered magic. I was given a wooden (kitchen utensil) that was supposed to be a magic gun," said Lucia N., a secondary school student in Dibaya territory, as quoted in the report.
"After that, I went with them wherever they went and participated in several battles. I later realized that we would not be able to defeat soldiers with the magic. They were killing us in large numbers."
Human rights groups urged the Congolese authorities to investigate and prosecute those found to be responsible for the atrocities, and called for support to be given to survivors.
"I find the cases documented in the report of girls raped by militiamen, and girls put defenseless on the frontlines, to be utterly horrifying," said Bede Sheppard, deputy director for children's rights at Human Rights Watch, a member of the GCPEA.
"The students who endured these awful attacks deserve access to medical, psychological, and social support, including assistance to continue to their schooling." (Reporting by Nita Bhalla @nitabhalla, Editing by Jason. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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