Congo: Civil war rape survivors go to court

Inter Press Service
Rape survivors from Congo's 1997-1999 civil war are taking their case to court, with help from 'Doctors Without Borders', a non-governmental organisation (NGO), which carries French acronym MSF.
According to foreign NGOs, which are growing in Congo, 52 percent of the 3,000 rape survivors that the civil war produced, were children or adolescents. Most were from Brazzaville, the capital of the Congo, and the Southwest of the central African country (Bouenza, Nirari Lekoumou, and Kouilou). MSF says 158 of the survivals became pregnant.
''For the minors, it was a very harsh introduction to life, one that has forced many to promiscuity. And for the married women, it was a harrowing reality that they ran the risk of being divorced by their husbands,'' says psychologist Marie Dominique Cahouet.

In a report published in Brazzaville recently, the MSF notes that ''64.3 percent of survivors interviewed have not filed suit nor notified the police''.

Some feel it would be impossible to identify their assailants. Very often, the women were victims of group rapes by soldiers. The circumstances, in which the rape took place, in the forest, or in abandoned houses or jails, made it difficult for them to identify their attackers.

In most cases, the attacks took place in areas not native to the assailants. ''Whether it's a lack of information on the court procedures, or a fear for their security or a sense of shame, most of these women do not wish to pursue legal proceedings against those who raped them,'' says Rebecca Oba, director of human rights at the Congolese Ministry of Justice. She is encouraging women to institute legal proceedings against the men who raped them.

Oba says amnesty law promulgated in Dec 1999 by President Denis Sassou Nguesso does not cover rape and other acts of violence committed against women during the civil war. ''The amnesty law does not provide immunity in the case of rape. Any person who, for personal interest, was guilty of rape or other offences during the war will not be able to claim amnesty,'' explains Oba, who is also a member of the Association of Women Jurists of Congo.

''Legal proceedings are possible when a survivor has identified her assailant,'' she adds, specifying that the complainant must pay 25,000 CFA francs (around 35.7 U.S. dollars) to file the case.

MSF, which supports the National Programme to Aid Survivors of Sexual Violence, has established contacts with the Congolese judiciary.

''It's a very confusing judicial system since there are no sessions set up to arraign the suspects. The court system is only partially in place and court sessions are irregular. The judiciary encourages rapists' families to come to friendly settlements with the police. That's the sort of thing we're trying to end,'' says the MSF's mission chief, Phillippe Cachet.

Cachet urged survivors to appear in court ''as quickly as possible''.

Angele Doko, who is around 19, has sought medical treatment at the hospital for rape. She thinks that MSF's project to help rape survivors in court will fill a great void for the survival of sexual violence.

But she is also aware of how slow the Congolese justice can be.

''The judicial system needs to wake up. If officials at the Ministry of Justice don't have a family member who's been raped, they need to know how much harm rape can cause. They must act now to help the survivals of sexual violence,'' Doko insists.

The legal proceedings will have repercussions for police or military men who may be found guilty of rape when they were engaged in military operations against militias or during the restoration of order. The police are often accused of complicity with rapists.

Most of those found guilty and sent to prison are released shortly thereafter. When rape survivor and rapist meet in the neighbourhood, the shock is often great.

The number of rape survivors, who have gone through MSF rehabilitation centres since 1999, has been rising since 2000 and the number of children less than 13 years old raped has reached 45 percent. Of the 332 rape cases seen by MSF since 2000, 178 involved minors.

According to the MSF, the majority of survivors are over the age of 18. In January 2002, 17 cases were documented, as compared to 18 in February, which included one survivor who returned twice.

Starting in March 2000, MSF has expanded its medical services to offer survivors, who come in within 72 hours, an anti-retroviral treatment against HIV/AIDS, and counselling.