The Democratic Republic of Congo has been the scene of some of the most devastating violence against women the world has witnessed, with armed groups using systematic sexual violence as a tool of war in a conflict that has spanned four decades.
But a recent effort to begin to address atrocities against women has fallen short of advocates' hopes for justice for rape victims. The initiative focused on criminal prosecution of offenders, a strategy that failed to consider the weak infrastructure of the nation's judicial system, left the needs of victims unmet and did little to address the issue of prevention.
A 2011 study (PDF) published in the American Journal of Public Health estimated that 1,150 women, ages 15 to 49, were raped every day in DR Congo despite the presence of MONUSCO, the United Nations' peacekeeping operation.
In 2006, the Congolese government undertook a reform of its judiciary and created strict laws against sexual violence. Officials sought to strengthen penalties for perpetrators and put in place a more effective criminal procedure. But in 2012 a UN report indicated that the country's judicial system lacked the resources to prosecute thousands of documented crimes.
There has been an increasing international focus on prosecution, especially since the UN Security Council adopted a resolution in 2013, focusing on rape and other forms of sexual violence in conflict and post-conflict situations. International organizations including the G8 also have emphasized prosecution (PDF) to address acts of violence against women.
Earlier this year, a Congolese military court put 39 soldiers from the DR Congo's armed forces on trial, charging them with mass rapes and other human rights violations (PDF) in Minova and surrounding villages in 2012. The Congolese government set up and fully funded this trial in response to mounting pressure from the international community to prosecute perpetrators.
Many hoped this case would be the first step in delivering justice to rape victims and their families. Survivors, who might have hesitated to testify, were given code names and provided with garb, resembling a full abaya, to help shield their identities when they faced the military defendants. Although widely welcomed, this process did little to ease the suffering of the victims. A Minova survivor, identified only as F64, said nothing could erase what was done to her.
At trial, the lack of prosecutorial resources may have influenced the outcome. Just two soldiers were convicted of the most serious charges, including rape, while 13 were acquitted; the rest were convicted on lesser charges. The court said the evidence presented was insufficient to convict several defendants, who could not be directly linked to women they were accused of raping.
Dara Cohen, an assistant professor at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, has published widely on sexual violence in conflict zones, including Sierra Leone, East Timor and El Salvador. She argues that prosecution might not be the most important policy option to meet rape survivors' needs. She says it is unlikely that rape survivors will pick prosecution or justice as their first priority; this is especially true in DR Congo, where rape's stigma is pervasive and survivors often seek to hide the crimes committed against them.
In DR Congo, there are glimmers of hope for changing the agenda on rape: On the eve of this year's International Women's Day, 20 men led by Dr. Denis Mukwege — founder of the largest hospital in the DR Congo that treats rape survivors — launched a Congolese version of V-Men. That name is adopted from V-Day, a global movement to end violence against women and girls. In a statement presented at the group's launch, members said they were responding to Congolese women's lament, “Where are the men?”
This movement was in the making for months and its timing after the disappointing rape trial verdicts was fortuitous. Its members, from various fields and professions, are respected advocates of women's rights in DR Congo. By involving men in the fight against crimes of violence against women and girls, group members hope to break the cycle of sexual violence in their country, address the needs of women in their communities, and reduce the stigma of rape for survivors.
Many activists, survivors and their families say policymakers should also seek to provide medical, mental health care, and other programs to help rape survivors. Prosecution, experts emphasize, can serve many purposes, including bringing survivors and their families justice for crimes committed. That end must be balanced, however, with the public policy goals of responding to the needs of survivors and their families, as well as preventing future attacks.
Mahlet Woldetsadik is an assistant policy analyst at RAND and a Ph.D. candidate at the Pardee RAND Graduate School. This blog was written for the Pardee Initiative for Global Human Progress.
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