KINSHASA – A rash of recent rape cases has sparked local criticism of the weakness of the justice system in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where inadequate resources and simple incompetence mean survivors of sexual violence hold little hope of obtaining justice.
“In the final week of July, we recorded more than 12 cases of rape committed against very young girls – some of the victims were just six years old,” said Father Jean Okutu, the parish priest at Sacré Cœur Church in Mushie Territory. “The perpetrators were adults, all civilians.”
A total of 16 rapes of young girls have been reported in recent weeks in this remote administrative district of western DRC, and the mothers of the survivors have joined forces to complain about the failure of the local and provincial judicial system to prosecute their assailants.
Maria T.*, whose eight-year-old daughter was one of the victims, told IPS that despite being treated at the Sacré Cœur parish dispensary, her little girl still complains of pain in her genitals and abdomen. “We have to go to a bigger medical centre to be sure that we won’t face more consequences later on. But we don’t have money,” she said.
Elodie K.’s ten-year-old daughter was also raped. “We need strong measures to protect young girls in Mushie. We also need the identities of all the victims to be carefully protected to ensure that they can grow up normally and have a chance to get married one day,” she said.
“The government should even consider relocating these children, or letting them study overseas at the state’s cost, to ensure they are protected from taunts and isolation by other children their age.”
According to Bandundu’s attorney general, André Mvunzu, the province has already put in place a programme to fight impunity for sexual violence.
“Twelve perpetrators of the rapes recently recorded in Mushie have been arrested and are currently in detention there. They will face trial and the court’s rulings will send a clear message to all,” he told IPS.
Mushie resident Jean Pierre N.* is skeptical. “When we hear the attorney general on the radio, we get the impression that he doesn’t have a clue about how his own judicial administration is working. Of the 12 accused that he stated are in detention, eight have escaped – including the two men who raped my daughter.”
Nzundu told IPS that security at Mushie’s prison needed to be improved, as it was not the first time detainees had escaped.
Jacques Katchelewa is head of a non-governmental organization working to promote gender equality and food security in Mushie. He fears that if the judicial system fails them, the families will turn to informal arrangements for compensation for the crimes committed against their daughters.
“This runs counter to the law in terms of ending sexual violence,” he said. “The only way victims and families can get justice is if the local court is strengthened. In Mushie, the court has just one magistrate who cannot, all by himself, sit and rule on cases of sexual violence. We need to reinforce the team of judges.”
Congolese law requires a panel of three judges to hear such cases.
Father Okutu shares Katchelewa’s concerns about the effectiveness of the justice system in Bandundu. “I’ve appealed for justice to be served in these rape cases. The provincial attorney general has responded by sending a second magistrate to support the one who is here.”
Mushie’s local prosecutor’s office is subordinate to the provincial attorney general’s office in the provincial capital, the city of Bandundu, 500 kilometres away. It is intended to bring justice a bit closer to the people, but it lacks resources – as do local residents.
“The victims’ families are too poor to pay court costs. I’ve already had to take on the cost of medical care for most of the girls,” Okutu told IPS.
“Litigants who experience problems should write to the Minister for Justice and Human Rights and to the High Council of the Judiciary to explain their difficulties in order to obtain justice and so that magistrates will be deployed to Mushie,” said Jean Paul Nyumba, an advisor to the justice minister’s office.
But Nyumba, himself a lawyer, lamented the fact that there is a shortage of magistrates in many parts of the country while there are many idle magistrates in the capital, Kinshasa.
Joseph Ntayondezandi Mushagalusa, a lawyer and former national attorney general, said a dose of realism is required. “The problems with the justice system are the same across the country,” he told IPS.
For example, Mushagalusa told IPS, “Even with the recruitment of 2,000 new magistrates in March 2012, the DRC’s judiciary has only 4,000 members. With the population standing at nearly 80 million, we have just one judge for every 20,000 residents of DRC.
“And that’s without accounting for the many magistrates who are not working, such as those who are assigned new posts, but for unresolved logistical and practical reasons, never report to their new assignments or abandon them.”
The provincial governor, Jean Kamisendu Kutaka, has appealed for help from the broader population. “Everyone needs to help the government fight against the different forms of criminality that are raging in the province. It calls for more vigilance. Every citizen has the obligation to expose crimes. It’s the only way to make criminals afraid,” he said.
- Annie Rashidi-Mulumba’s Shocking Letter from the Congo| The Daily Beast (Letter, April 14, 2010)