Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

DRC Rape Victims Opt for Extrajudicial Settlements

Flawed justice system prompts some rape victims to reach out-of-court agreements with assailants.
By Espérance Nzigire
  • A shelter for female victims of sexual abuse in Goma.  Photo: UN Photo/Marie Frechon
    A shelter for female victims of sexual abuse in Goma. Photo: UN Photo/Marie Frechon

When 14-year-old Judith, not her real name, was raped in Goma, her father decided not to report the matter to the authorities. Instead, the family of the victim sat down with that of the rapist and hammered out a so-called friendly settlement.

“At least I received the equivalent of a dowry from the family of the boy who had taken my daughter by force,” the father said. “Our two families sat around the table with a few wise men from the neighbourhood and we came to an amicable agreement.”

He added that going to the courts would have meant losing both time and money unnecessarily.

“I didn’t want to call the police because this would have meant a scandal for my daughter and, even if I had done this, nothing would have come of it,” he said.

“Indeed, we always see perpetrators of these acts being released three months after having been arrested and tried, roaming in the neighbourhood and even harassing their victims’ families. So why should I lose my time and unnecessarily spend the little money I have to support my family by going before justice?”

Irène Ntambuka, programme director at Dynamique des Femmes Juristes, a local NGO that provides legal aid to rape victims, says that such agreements in sexual violence cases are becoming more common, largely because of a lack of trust in the local justice system

“People believe that if they go before the courts they will not obtain justice and damages will not be paid,” she said. “On the other hand, if they choose a friendly settlement, they can get a few goats, cows, some money, and so forth.”

New legislation to combat sexual violence was introduced in 2006. Among other things, it raised the age of consent from 16 to 18, and repealed a previous law that allowed those convicted of rape to pay a fine in return for a lighter sentence.

Rape carries with it a sentence of between five and 20 years, as well as a fine of at least 100,000 Congolese francs (approximately 3000 US dollars). In cases where the victim dies as a result of an attack, the law provides for a maximum term of life imprisonment.

But, despite this new law, few people trust the verdicts that are delivered by the courts and tribunals of North Kivu.

Data from the Provincial Commission for the Fight against Sexual Violence, CPLVS, a platform of human rights organisations, indicates that 4,026 rapes were reported in North Kivu during 2009, down from 4820 the previous year.

Eugène Buzake, a lawyer and coordinator for the NGO Synergy for Judicial Assistance, SAJ, says that a friendly settlement agreement reached between two families is often harmful to the rape victim.

“The agreement does not benefit the victim for several reasons,” he said. “The victim is often isolated and does not take part in negotiations. Therefore, her needs are not taken into account.

“Moreover, such agreements favour a victim’s silence, even though the victim can have serious health and psychological problems that need significant assistance. Another consequence is that the agreements send out the message that you can commit rape, as long as you have just a few goats.”

Local residents share different views about whether friendly settlements are a positive alternative to the national justice system. Some say that, given that the Congolese justice system is so slow, these agreements at least provide some sort of closure.

Gilbert, a sociology student at Goma University, said. “It is better to settle all this within the family instead of waiting years and years.”

Others believe that, even if it takes time, the important thing is that perpetrators of rape are punished according to the law.

“This would be an example for others who believe that one can rape if one has the capacity to give the dowry to the victim’s family,” Kavira, a trader at the central market in Goma, said.

This view is shared by Ntambuka, from Dynamique des Femmes Juristes, who said, “It is the dreadfulness of the act that should push the victim to go before the courts to get justice, and not the money.”

A source within a special unit for the protection of children told IWPR that more is now being done to fight sexual violence in eastern DRC, pointing out the “zero tolerance” approach that President Joseph Kabila announced last year.

“Things have changed now,” he said. “Perpetrators of obvious human rights violations should be held accountable. But, for this to happen, victims must report these acts so that we can catch these criminals.

“The question of rape should not be settled within the family. This is the way of encouraging the perpetrator of these heinous acts to continue doing them. We must say no to this.”

But Ntambuka says that a lot remains to be done.

“Justice should get closer to the people,” she said. “For instance, we know that Masisi, Walikale, Rutshuru and Nyiragongo territories have no courts [that can handle rape cases] and depend on Goma. How can a victim go from Walikale to Goma, which is more than 200 kilometres away, in order to get justice? This is something that the government really should think about.”

She added that there should also be awareness campaigns so that people, especially women, become familiar with justice and how they can obtain it. She also said that the government should address the problem of prison conditions, starting with the infrastructure, since this is what facilitates the escape of prisoners, making people think that there is no justice.

Espérance Nzigire is an IWPR-trained reporter.

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