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25 November 2009

Women in Congo seek justice

Germain Bitaragazi and his neighbour live in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. They returned home from cultivating their fields two years ago, to find their 8 children from the two families aged between 4 and 11 had been sexually abused by a soldier from the government forces, The Armed Forces of the Democratic Republic of Congo FARDC. Theirs is a tragic story but not an unusual one in a country where rape is commonplace. But what followed is almost unheard of and it offers reason for optimism that the rule of law in DRC still survives.

Sexual violence is difficult to prosecute in Congo but the women are fighting back and seeking justice - © OHCHRBitaragazi and his neighbor were determined to bring to justice the person who had perpetrated the crimes and they were partially successful.
“We went to court. He is now in prison but we never got the money,” Germain Bitaragazi says.

The soldier who attacked the children is now behind bars. But the families have never received the amount of 40,000 Congolese francs equivalent to less than 50 US dollars awarded by the court.  

Sexual violence is a hallmark of the conflict in Eastern Congo. It is a region with few hospitals to care for the victims and a weak judicial system. Astonishingly though, many of the sexual violence victims are now seeking medical care and some are going further and pursuing justice through the courts.

The Medical director at Walungu hospital Dr Jean Mukingeka says increasingly women and girls are seeking medical help. “Not all women victims of sexual violence seek help, out of shame or fear of stigmatization. But we are seeing more women come to seek treatment.”

The local police acknowledge the high numbers of rape cases against women. But say they don’t have the capacity to deal with so many cases. “When you are arresting someone and have to walk long distances, and there is only one policeman to handle the criminal, they will run away,” Willy Lukangu the police commandant at Walungu says.

“Violence against women is a weapon of war in armed conflict,” says UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay. “We work to combat sexual violence and to bring perpetrators to account. Rendering justice to the victims is not only a moral imperative, but also a legal obligation without which communal welfare is compromised.”

The United Nations system has created initiatives to address the protection of women and children from rape and other acts of sexual violence. These include appointment of women as protection officers to follow the cases.

The UN human rights’ Office in DRC is helping communities to access justice. Luc Hekinbrant is the chair of the United Nations human rights office task force on impunity and sexual violence. “We are trying to fight the main causes of impunity and sexual violence,” he says “One of the many obstacles that victims of rape are facing when they are willing to seek justice are fear of stigmatization, fear of reprisals, so we are trying to support them through a network of local NGO’s to provide assistance to these victims.”

The Congolese government has begun holding public hearings to explain its zero tolerance policy on sexual violence by the national army other security forces also commit sexual violence – which so often have been implicated in large scale pillage and killings against the very citizens it is supposed to protect. 

But Hekinbrant says a lot more needs to be done. “Government needs to do much more in ensuring effective prosecution. We would like to see higher ranking officials prosecuted.”

The international 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence Campaign symbolically links 25 November, International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, with 10 December, Human Rights Day. This 16-day period also highlights other significant dates.