Fighting impunity for sexual violence

Nov 5, 2012

Gisèle is making the most of the relative safety from one of the clinics for victims of sexual violence, in the district of Ituri. The mother of three, whose husband was killed during combat, recounts the heartbreaking story, a situation that is unfortunately not uncommon, of the way she survived the war in this part of Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

"I took refuge in a camp for displaced persons where I was raped by three armed men" she says. "The physical and psychological pain was profound. I was so distressed that I did not think I could care for my children after the aggression. I had the impression of being completely abandoned by my family and community."

The brutal treatment that Gisèle and many other Congolese women had suffered, and the obviously impunity given to the criminals, has become a significant challenge for a country that is striving to move beyond their past and restore peace, security and rule of law. 

A project of United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in the provinces of Kivu and the district of Ituri, as part of a programme for better access to justice in DRC, it hopes to restore confidence in the judicial system, to provide victims of sexual violence with better access to justice, to security and safety, by training the police how to conduct investigations and the judicial authorities how to prosecute the alleged, by raising awareness about their rights and by documenting the numerous committed crimes. 

Like thousands of other women in DRC, Gisèle is a survivor of sexual violence. During the long civil war, these acts have become frequent. Women and children forced into prostitution, forced pregnancy, and even deliberately propagation of sexually transmitted infections are circumstances that affect all parties of the war. 

The women of Congo often hesitate to report sexual violence because of their lack of knowledge of the judicial system or out of fear of being stigmatised. In response, UNDP has helped put in place the Special Police for the Protection of the Child and Woman, a programme specialised in sexual crimes. This unit started to document the multitude of on-going cases. In 2010 and 2011, under judicial supervision, the UNDP observed more than 6500 cases of sexual violence, reliable data which facilitated the prioritizing of intervention. 

The programme "Appui à la justice" of UNDP in DRC existed since 2009. Upon the completion of the programme in 2013, 14 million USD would have been spent. 

The UNDP observed more than 6500 cases of sexual violence, among which 650 were brought before the court with a 60% conviction rate. 

Nine centers supported by UNDO offer medical and legal services, and strive to protect women by enforcing their case before the courts. 

The trials are held as close as possible to the crime scene and to the residence of the plaintiff, in order for the justice process to be accessible to the plaintiff. Therefore, the court hearings are sometimes held outdoors. 

Formed and supported by the UNDP, mobile courts are able to bring justice even to the furthest regions. 

"The victims that I defend feel relieved when they know they can participate in the trials", declares Maître Lorianne Shakira, a lawyer of Kisangani. "Before court hearings are possible, a woman who had the possibility to file a complaint had to wait many months before her case is processed. The court was often very far away from the villages and the victims lost hope. The mobile courts and public hearings bring justice to vulnerable populations."

Nine clinics have been installed with the help of UNDP. They provide legal and medical help to women who are seeking justice and offer a "special legal help" for the victims of sexual violence. "The victims come to the clinics to seek treatment" says Justin Ntanyanya, a legal practitioner at one of the clinics. "Thanks to our service, women obtain physical aide from doctors, as well as legal help. Since most of the women do not know their rights well, we encourage them to submit their complaint."


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