Help and justice for raped, displaced women

“When the soldiers came to our village, they gathered some of my family into our hut and set it on fire. Then they raped all the women,” said Masoka, lying on the ground because sitting is painful. She looks 10 years older than her age of 32.

Many women suffered the same fate: raped and forced out of their homes, they journeyed over 600km to reach Lubumbashi, capital of Katanga Province in the south. Hundreds of them, mostly widows, have taken refuge with their children in abandoned warehouses in the neighbourhood of Elakat.

Prosperine Kalunga, 45, was raped by “four men in uniform” when she tried to escape the violence in Kalemie in 1999. “I’m always exhausted and weak, I can’t gain any weight and I never sleep well.” She was afraid to have an HIV test but was persuaded by Bernadette Mukando, a nurse who also fled Kalemie and has become affectionately known as ‘Doctor Bernadette’.

With little or no resources she has been trying to help the traumatised women in the Elakat warehouses. “STDs [sexually transmitted diseases] and HIV are ravaging these displaced women,” said Bernadette. During the war, when they were first infected, there was no potentially life-saving treatment available, such as an antiretroviral (ARV) cocktail that can greatly reduce the risk of infection if administered within 72 hours of exposure to HIV.

Besides the difficulty of finding treatment in isolated rural areas, victims were also reluctant to report the crimes committed against them out of fear, shame, or a lack of cooperation from the authorities.

Women’s rights groups are frustrated by the tendency of the authorities to turn a blind eye to rape cases. Thousands of women were sexually assaulted during the decade-long conflict in the DRC, particularly in the east where HIV/AIDS prevalence is highest. Even now, in times of peace, sexual violence is still a problem, often occurring within the home.

“When a woman who has been raped comes to see us, it’s not to file a report but for psychological support,” said Ida Kitwa, a lawyer with Solidarite Pour le Developpement Humain, a Congolese NGO and coordinator of the Katanga branch of Reseau Action Femmes (RAF).

Many of them ignore their declining health because they are busy trying to provide for their families by cleaning houses and doing laundry, and access to care is very difficult, so that by the time they work up the courage to come to Kitwa’s office in Lubumbashi it is usually too late to prevent HIV infection.

Prosperine, who had never heard of AIDS before taking a test in 2005, now has regular medical appointments to monitor potential infections and is awaiting ARV treatment, but she is a rare exception.

Despite greater international aid in the last months to improve universal access to HIV treatment, less than 10 percent of HIV-positive patients receive it. This proportion is lower, or even non-existent, among displaced people.

“We can’t provide ARV’s to displaced populations because they move around too much. An ARV treatment is administered for life, so in order for treatment to be effective, you need a stable population,” said Dr Augustin Okenge, local director of the Programme national de lutte contre le sida (PNLS).

For the women of Elakat, stability is a priority but nearly impossible to find. They do not want to spend the rest of their lives in the dilapidated warehouses, where the roofs are made of plastic food aid bags and the washrooms have no walls or running water, but neither do they want to return to their villages, where the fate of loved ones is often unknown and their victimisers are possibly still at large.

According to RAF, the only way to protect these women is to bring an end to the impunity of their rapists. The organisation, supported by various groups that include the United Nations Mission to the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUC), drafted legislation that rewrote the legal definition of rape, which was adopted by the Congolese parliament in June.

Previously, rape was considered a criminal act only when “a male organ penetrated a female organ with ejaculation”, explained Kitwa. Now the charge includes a woman being violated with a foreign object, such as a gun – a common practice during the war – and carries the same penalty of 10 to 20 years imprisonment.

Another step forward, particularly for displaced women, is that they can now “press charges against an unknown person”, said Kitwa. “In a case where a military figure was the rapist, often his status offered him protection outside of the jurisdiction and there was nothing that could be done. But now we can arrest the accused no matter where he is.”

The next move towards proper justice would be to enact a law recognising the civil responsibility of the state when a rape has been committed by a person armed under its auspices, such as a soldier or a policeman. The state would then be legally bound to compensate the victim and care for her, particularly if she contracted HIV as a result of the assault.

According to the PNLS, 20 percent of rape victims contracted HIV as a result of being attacked.

There has also been a move since 2005 to ‘synergise’ the efforts of NGOs, international partners and local authorities, so that victims receive better support and services. Survivors seeking psychological support would be referred to medical services, and eventually directed to the legal commission for investigation.

“Sexual violence has existed for a long time, but it was never reported. With this ‘synergy’, people are beginning to realise that this is a serious problem,” said Mujijima Bora Kabera, head of the Katanga Provincial department for the status of women and children.

A campaign informing the public of the services available has encouraged large numbers of women to come forward, some from over 200km away. Between January and June 1,246 reports were filed with the legal commission in Kalemie, half of which were cases of rape, some committed by soldiers.

“Even in cases where the act was committed by [members of the] armed forces, people are no longer afraid to come forward and want justice,” said Kabera. “It’s still an intimidating step to take, but slowly women are taking it.” ‘ IRIN

August 2006
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