In the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), the incidence of rape and other forms of violence against women is among the highest recorded anywhere in the world. Gender-based violence (GBV) is particularly acute in North and South Kivu provinces in war-torn eastern DRC. Assailants include armed militias who use rape as a weapon of war, as well as members of the national army and police. Increasingly, they also include civilians. The rape epidemic has claimed victims ranging in age from 3–75 years.
Rape is rampant, in part, because perpetrators face little or no risk of incarceration for committing horrific acts of sexual violence. A gravely weakened legal system helps perpetuate a culture of impunity.
Since January 2008, the ABA Rule of Law Initiative (ABA ROLI), with the U.S. Department of State funding, has been operating a program to combat impunity. ABA ROLI’s legal aid clinic has helped bring GBV perpetrators to justice in the provincial capital of North Kivu Province, Goma.
“Nothing I read about the rape crisis prepared me for my visit to Goma, where some of the client-victims I met were girls less than 10 years old,” said ABA ROLI Deputy Director Michael Maya after a visit to Goma in February. “The savagery visited upon these young girls by armed militia and civilians is beyond comprehension, leaving them hospitalized for months or longer.”
From early 2008 through March 2009, ABA ROLI’s legal aid clinic has provided roughly 300 victims of sexual violence with free legal counseling. More than 200 women and girls have also received psychological counseling from ABA ROLI’s full-time rape trauma counselor. During this period, nearly 100 criminal complaints have been filed with police and prosecutors, resulting in an unprecedented 25 convictions.
One especially hopeful sign is that, of the cases that have been fully adjudicated, only 3 have resulted in acquittals. This proves that, despite its frailties, the Congolese legal system is capable of meting out justice against perpetrators of GBV, so long as there are well-trained, dogged advocates available to represent rape victims.
“ABA ROLI’s assistance in bringing justice to these victims and in helping to turn the tide against the culture of impunity in eastern DRC is elemental rule of law work,” Maya says. “Given the gravity of the rape crisis, it is also some of the most important work this organization has ever done.”
ABA ROLI has helped pave the way for these convictions through a comprehensive approach to the rape crisis. The program has trained police, judges and prosecutors on GBV and on the use of Congolese law to bring perpetrators to justice. ABA ROLI has also partnered with the North Kivu Bar Association to expand the capacity of local lawyers to represent rape victims in criminal cases. Without these lawyers, numerous criminal complaints would have been dismissed and many—if not all—of these convictions never would have been obtained.
Additionally, ABA ROLI has launched a media campaign to educate the public about GBV and the availability of resources to bring perpetrators to justice. Together, these efforts have given rape survivors and their families hope that justice can be obtained through legitimate means. For the first time, at least in the Goma region, word is spreading that there are consequences for committing unconscionable acts of sexual violence against women.
The challenge now is to expand rape prosecution efforts in Goma and in other parts of eastern DRC. With funding from the Dutch government, ABA ROLI recently expanded its rape prosecution efforts to neighboring Maniema province. There, ABA ROLI will support the prosecution of GBV perpetrators, including through a mobile court program that allows judges and prosecutors to travel to remote villages to ensure that rape victims in rural areas obtain access to justice. Additionally, the MacArthur Foundation recently provided ABA ROLI with funds to implement a rape prosecution program in Butembo, North Kivu. Finally, ABA ROLI continues to seek funding to expand its efforts into South Kivu province, where, as in North Kivu, the rape crisis rages on.
To learn more about our work in the Democratic Republic of Congo, contact the ABA Rule of Law Initiative at <[email protected]>.