The UN estimates that 15,000 women were raped in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo last year [AFP]

Thousands of women have marched against sexual violence in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), where the miseries of war have been compounded by mass rapes.

About 1,700 women who had attended a week-long forum on peace and development in Bukavu, the capital of South Kivu province, joined in the march on Sunday, which was led by Olive Lembe Kabila, the wife of the president, Joseph Kabila.

The atmosphere of the march was colourful and peaceful, and many demonstrators carried banners with slogans such as "No to sexual terrorism".

"Coming here is important because violence towards women is used systematically as a weapon of war," Miriam Nobre, an organiser of the march with the World March of Women, said.

The UN estimates that 15,000 women were raped in eastern DR Congo last year. Numerous Congolese and overseas rebel groups are active in the region, while government forces are also accused of mistreating civilians.

'Regaining dignity'

"We have fought this for years, and now it seems that the international community is genuinely interested in our problems," Nene Rukunghu, a doctor at a hospital in Bukavu where rape victims are treated, said.

"We must fight against impunity, so that the perpetrators of violence are punished, to allow women can regain their dignity. Despite what they endure, Congolese women are strong and able to stand up again," she said.

According to the UN Population Fund, there were 17,507 sexual violence attacks throughout Congo in 2009 - including more than 9,000 in North and South Kivu, which have been at the centre of the conflict in the east.

The scale of rapes and sexual violence has not diminished much this year, according to the fund, known as UNFPA, which collects data in Congo.

It said there were 7,685 attacks in Congo between January and June, including more than 4,500 in the two Kivu provinces.

Abubakar Dungus, a UNFPA spokesman, said 5,427 of the sexual attacks this year - about 70 per cent - were perpetrated "by men in uniform''. It was unclear if he was referring to soldiers or rebels.

Source: Al Jazeera and agencies