When nine-year-old Jeanne* from North Kivu Province in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) was raped by a neighbour, her parents were determined he would not get away with it.
With the help of an international organization that provides legal services for victims of sexual violence, they contacted the police and got a lawyer.
Then the DRC’s legal system kicked in.
The man, who lives in Masisi territory several hours from the provincial capital Goma where Jeanne is hospitalized, paid off the local police to let him out of prison. When officers from Goma came to make the arrest, he was gone - tipped off by a family member who works at Goma police station, according to Jeanne’s family.
When the officers left he came back and threatened to kill Jeanne’s father who had stayed in their village to care for their other three children. Terrified, the family fled. The neighbour, meanwhile, remains at home.
“Even when she is healed we can’t go back to our village,” said Jeanne’s mother, speaking from the Heal Africa hospital where her daughter is being treated. “Where are we going to live now?”
It is depressingly easy to find such examples of how the DRC’s justice system completely fails to prosecute rape - in a country with 17,500 reported incidents of sexual violence in 2009, according to the UN Population Fund, representing only a tiny fraction of the total as most rapes go unreported.
Hortense Kalamata runs a programme in the town of Kiwanja in North Kivu to assist victims of sexual violence with counselling and legal support. She encourages rape victims to pursue their attackers through the courts - but admits the obstacles are many and successes few and far between.
She explains there are no courts in Kiwanja so accused rapists must be taken nearly 100km to Goma for detention and trial - all at the victim’s expense. She will also have to pay the police to investigate, and for the pens and paper needed to take down the complaint. If the alleged attacker is an important person she may as well not bother as no investigation will be done.
A woman must also recognize her attacker, Kalamata says, as police do not have the capacity to investigate assaults by unknown perpetrators.
“The legal process is long and requires money... and usually after a few days she will see [the man] return to the community,” said Kalamata.
Not surprisingly then, only around six women per month come through Kalamata’s doors, most from Kiwanja town itself.
In the countryside, rape victims have almost no chance at all of getting justice.
In the village of Katoro, deep into Rutshuru territory where Rwandan Hutu rebels, the FDLR, still battle the Congolese army, local women told IRIN that no one has ever been arrested for raping a villager, despite numerous attacks.
“When we are raped we don’t tell anyone,” said Antoinette Shimimana. “There are no police here, no one to whom you could report sexual violence.”
Photo: Lisa Clifford/IRIN
|Rapists rarely see the inside of court houses like this one in Goma|
Vumilia Ntangunzi, also from Katoro, asks: “If a soldier comes in the night, how can I recognize him?”
It is the FDLR and the army who are currently accused by human rights groups as being most responsible for North Kivu’s rape epidemic and with so many soldiers close by, the threat of rape in Katoro is high. “When I go to the fields I can’t go very far,” said Shimimana.
Lack of courts in rural areas like Katoro is one of the major obstacles to prosecuting rape in North Kivu. Only the cities of Goma, Beni and Butembo have tribunals capable of hearing cases of sexual violence, an almost insurmountable obstacle for most Congolese women.
Mobile court project
One solution is the American Bar Association’s (ABA) mobile court project. It aims to bring justice to women in remote areas - setting up temporary tribunals in communities to try cases of sexual violence. The ABA’s director in the DRC said the group pays for lawyers for both perpetrators and victims.
“Our aim is to promote the rule of law,” said Guy Charles Makongo. “Wherever we organize a mobile court we make sure the process of equitable justice is applied.”
The group also runs a Goma-based judicial clinic which has seen 700 people since 2008. Makongo says the ABA works within the DRC’s own system - trying to make sustainable improvements rather than create a parallel structure that could collapse when Western donors move on. They tackle perpetrators but also the corrupt officials and policemen who allow them to escape from justice.
Focusing on high profile arrests to act as a deterrent to would-be rapists is another ABA priority. “It is better to sentence one person at a high level rather than 100 people who don’t have any impact on society,” Makongo said.
Those who work with DRC’s raped women agree that the judicial process is an important part of healing, a way for victims to regain their dignity and feelings of self-worth. “When a victim knows her rapist has been condemned she can be happy,” said Kalamata. “She can get some sort of revenge.”
Stigmatism is another huge problem. Many women are reluctant to denounce their attackers for fear of being discarded by their communities and divorced by their husbands. The experts say the justice process, when it works, can help with this.
“Rape destroys the life of the victim but also the life of the whole family. Women are rejected by the community, by their husband; they are no longer proud of themselves,” said Makongo. “Seeing the perpetrator sentenced is kind of compensation for that.”
Fourteen-year-old Marie*, who was raped in Goma by the brother of a school friend and given an ABA lawyer to pursue the case, wants to see her attacker imprisoned. “I would feel well if this man was arrested, because he has handicapped my life,” she said.
As ever, this seems unlikely. Marie, who gave birth two months ago to her rapist’s child, says his family influenced the police to allow him to leave the city. Unable to return to school or find work, she now lives with her mother who has no means of supporting the family.
|There are no police here, no one to whom you could report sexual violence|
DRC’s government has promised “zero tolerance” for crimes of sexual violence committed by its army and has passed a stringent, though rarely enforced, rape law that on paper at least imposes sentences of up to 20 years.
The government last year fired more than 150 judges accused of corruption and is in the process of hiring others, enabling more rape prosecutions to be heard.
But Marie, Jeanne and thousands of other victims are growing impatient. ABA lawyer Sheyna Muhima can offer little comfort and cautions that the fight against sexual violence could take many years.
“Its not going to be only one day and you’ll get a result,” she said. “You have to continue. We need to mobilize and do education activities for women, ensure they recognize rape is a crime.”
*not her real name