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 / DRCThe 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 in combat, 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.”

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 reports that an estimated 5,000 women were raped in one province in 2013. 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 and restore peace, security and the rule of law.

A UNDP project in the Kivus Provinces and Ituri District, funded mainly by the United States and Sweden as part of a broader Access to Justice Programme in DRC, is hoping to change all that by restoring trust in the justice system. The project has helped to provide better access to justice,  security, and information for victims of sexual violence; to train police to investigate and the judiciary to prosecute those responsible; and to document the crimes committed.

Congolese women are often reluctant to report sexual violence because they lack awareness about the justice system or because 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 documents the mountain of cases left over from the country’s long running war, and by 2013, the unit has received, investigated, and transfered 570 cases of sexual and gender-based violence in the judicial system.

UNDP also conducted judicial monitoring in the Kivus Provinces and Ituri District, which allowed for gathering of exact data on the judicial response by the military justice, further ensuring that justice was carried out according to the standards of a fair trial. UNDP monitored over 6,500 sexual violence crimes, helping to obtain accurate data to adjust action plans accordingly. Of the cases heard, nearly 70% led to convictions and over half of all cases were related to sexual and gender-based violence.

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 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.”

In 2013, UNDP’s support to the clinics enabled more than 3,000 people living in remote localities to access legal advice, from which 5118 people were accompanied to judicial authorities for cases of sexual and gender-based violence.

UNDP has also assisted in training both community leaders and soldiers on the concepts of women's rights, gender-based violence, criminal responsibility and the judicial mechainisms. 78.4% of community leaders mastered these concepts on a test after the training, and over 2,200 soldiers have been given awareness training on the laws regarding sexual violence and the criminal responsibility of commanding officers. By training both military units and community leaders 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, fewer women like Gisèle will face the physical and psychological trauma of sexual violence.

*not her real name

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