DR Congo: Legal clinics help victims of sexual violence
Julie* is just 10 years old. She is one of the clients at the legal clinic in Muganga, North Kivu. The clinic works to support victims of sexual violence and give them new hope.
Julie’s father did not understand what had happened to his daughter and decided to punish her by keeping her out of school. Her mother explains: “He thought that she wanted to play at being a mother by going with a boy. So he said that if she wanted to be a mother, she wouldn’t go to school anymore.”
- The legal clinics provide comprehensive services to victims, from medical care and legal services to reintegration into the community.
- Since the project launched, 14 clinics have monitored over 1,300 cases of sexual violebce; over 800 have gone to court, with 522 decisions rendered and 385 convictions.
- A large-scale programme on access to justice (2006-2013) provided psycho-social support to 40,000 victims, resulting in the social and economic reintegration of 13,843 women and girls.
The rapist is not yet 18 and is being held a rehabilitation centre for minors. Most of the offenders are young, out-of-work men. The region’s unemployment rate is approximately 85%, and this forced idleness, combined with a lack of education, drives them to commit all sorts of crimes. Sexual violence is one tragic example.
It is in this context that a joint United Nations programme has been established to combat the prevalence of sexual violence in the eastern part of the country. Coordinated by the UNDP and with CAD18 million in funding from the Canadian government, the project advocates comprehensive follow-up with victims, addressing medical, psychological, legal, family, social, political, legislative, educational and economic aspects.
Victims are first taken to a hospital for medical care. The doctors prepare a report, which serves as evidence during legal proceedings. The victims also receive psycho-social support and may decide to bring action through the legal clinic. Following an investigation, the matter often goes to court. The clinic monitors the process closely.
This programme was launched in fall 2014. Staff from 14 clinics have followed over 4,000 cases, among them 1,388 victims of sexual violence. Close to 800 cases have gone to court, with over 500 decisions rendered and 385 convictions. More than 1000 victims, 300 of them underage, have also benefited from reintegration into their community with support from community centres where women can obtain training to become financially independent.
Creating awareness within the community
Unfortunately, victims often hesitate to report sexual violence because they lack confidence in the justice system or out of fear of being stigmatized. Many choose an out-of-court settlement. “They would rather receive US $200 in damages immediately from the family of the guilty party, rather than the US $450 provided in a legal judgment,” explains Mr. John, the attorney responsible for monitoring these matters.
That is why the programme also allocates resources to prevention and creating awareness to change behaviour and enable victims of sexual crimes to be reintegrated in a community that traditionally rejects them.
The Muganga legal clinic thus organizes information sessions for women as well as for community leaders and local chiefs. This is how Julie’s mother found the clinic and learned that there were ways to help her child.
Thanks to mediation provided by clinic, Julie has returned to school after a four month absence.
The UNDP has a long history of working to combat sexual violence in the DRC, coordinating a large-scale programme on access to justice from 2006 to 2013. The goal was to restore confidence in the legal system by improving access to the courts for victims of sexual violence, by teaching police how to conduct inquiries and judges how to prosecute alleged perpetrators.
The programme funded 85 projects, for a total budget of more than US $28 million. It helped to establish 140 community organizations to protect victims of violence. More than 25,000 victims of sexual violence have received medical care and nearly 40,000 have received psycho-social support leading to the social and economic reintegration of 13,843 women and girls.
* not her real name