Fighting sexual violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo

The office walls of the special police unit for the protection of women and children, which specializes in crimes of sexual violence, Goma, DRC. Photo: Bertrand Ginet UNDP / DRC
The office walls of the special police unit for the protection of women and children, which specializes in crimes of sexual violence, Goma, DRC. Photo: Bertrand Ginet UNDP / DRC

Gisèle* sits in the relative safety of a clinic for victims of sexual violence in the district of Ituri. The mother of three, whose husband was killed during recent fighting, tells a harrowing but sadly typical story about her experience in the conflict in this part of eastern DRC.

“I took refuge in a camp for displaced people where I was raped by three armed men,” she says. “The physical and psychological pain was immense. I was so distressed that I felt I couldn’t look after my children after the attack. I felt like I was completely abandoned by my family and community.”

Highlights

  • UNDP’s Access to Justice programme, mainly supported by the United States and Sweden has been running since 2009. US$ 14 million will have been spent by the time the programme comes to an end in 2013
  • UNDP has monitored over 6,500 sexual violence crimes since 2010; brought over 650 cases to court, and; helped achieve a 60 percent conviction rate.
  • Nine UNDP supported legal and medical clinics work to protect women and get their cases heard.

Like thousands of other women in DRC, Gisèle is a survivor of the sexual violence that has become commonplace during the country’s long-running civil conflict. The Heal Africa Hospital based in Goma recently reported that an estimated 5,000 women were raped in one province this year alone. Forcing women and children into sex work; forced pregnancy; and even the deliberate spread of sexually transmitted infections are carried out by all sides in the conflict.

The brutal treatment that Gisèle and many other Congolese women have received, and the apparent impunity for the worst offenders, has become a serious challenge for the country as it tries to shake off its past, restore peace, security and the rule of law.

A United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) project in the Kivus Provinces and Ituri District, part of a broader Access to Justice Programme in DRC, is hoping to change all that by restoring trust in the justice system; providing better access to justice, safety and security for victims of sexual violence; training police to investigate and the judiciary to prosecute those responsible; raising awareness about rights; and documenting the many crimes committed.

Congolese women are often reluctant to report sexual violence because they lack awareness about the justice system, or they don’t want to be stigmatized. In response, UNDP helped establish the Police Special Protection of Children and Women Unit, which specializes in crimes of sexual violence. The unit has begun to document the mountain of cases left over from the country’s long running war.

In 2010 and 2011, UNDP monitored over 6,500 sexual violence crimes, helping to obtain accurate data allowing to adjust action plans accordingly (see report here). More than 650 of these cases had gone to court by the end of 2011 and dozens more were heard in 2012, resulting in about a 60 percent conviction rate.

Trials are held as close to the crime scene and the complainant’s home as possible, in order to make the justice process accessible to survivors. Sometimes, this means having open air and mobile court sessions. These UNDP trained and supported mobile courts are able to bring justice to even the most remote of areas.

"The victims I defend are relieved when they know that they can actually participate in the trial,” says Mrs. Lorianne Shakira, a lawyer from Kisangani. “Before these mobile courts were in operation, even if a woman was able to make a complaint, it would take several months before she would hear news about her case. The court was often far from their village and they would lose hope. The mobile courts and these public hearings bring justice to these vulnerable people.”

Nine clinics have been established with UNDP help. They provide legal and medical assistance to women seeking justice and offer a “special legal aid service” for the victims of sexual violence. "Victims come to the clinic for treatment," says Justin Ntanyanya, a lawyer with one of the clinics. “The women get physical help from doctors, as well as legal help through our service. Because most women are not familiar with their rights, we encourage them to file complaints and refer them to appropriate legal assistance.”

Because rape is often both a tactic and a consequence of conflict, over 2,200 soldiers have also been given awareness training on the laws regarding sexual violence and the criminal responsibility of commanding officers. It is hoped that by training military units in their legal obligations, as well as in investigative techniques and the judicial process, they can become part of the solution, rather than part of the problem; and in the future, less women like Gisèle will face the physical and psychological trauma of sexual violence.

*not her real name

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