Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
Congolese women are fearful of reporting sexual harassment. (Photo: Melanie Gouby)
Concerns have been raised over the reluctance of women in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo to pursue sexual harassment cases against men who abuse them in the workplace.
Experts say the problem stems from both women’s reluctance to speak out on the issue and the difficulties in proving cases. And with perpetrators not being prosecuted, the number of offences is growing, they warn.
According to statistics from the Synergy of Women for Sexual Violence Victims, a local advocacy group, at least 80 per cent of women in the region’s workforce have experienced some form of sexual harassment. The problem affects both the private and public sector, the group says.
“Sexual harassment is a common problem. But if women keep silent about it, it will never decrease,” said Major Bodeli Dombi, the deputy commander of the special police unit for the protection of women and children, PSPE, in the town of Goma in eastern DRC.
“I’ve been working for two years in this company. I had to pass by my boss’s office each morning so he could touch me,” one victim of sexual harassment told IWPR. “Then he forced me to have sexual intercourse with him so I would get a promotion. He left and I didn’t get my promotion.”
Employers who engage in sexual harassment are often thought to take advantage of the fears female employees have of losing their jobs if they speak out.
“To keep my job, my boss asked me to sleep with him and, since then, it has become a habit,” another female employee told IWPR. “If I refuse [him], I would risk losing my job.”
While many keep quiet in case they’re fired, others do so because they want to avoid becoming the subject of rumours or being stigmatised.
“Women who are victims of sexual harassment at work do not report it [as they] fear they won’t be taken seriously. They could then be subjected to provocations and wouldn’t know whom to turn to. This creates psychological problems including fear, anxiety and anger,” Gérôme Mukasa, a psychotherapist in Goma, said.
Mireille Ntambuka of the women’s legal group Dynamique Femmes Juristes, DFJ, also noted the lack of reported cases.
“So far, there are no women who reported sexual harassment cases to the DFJ,” Ntambuka said. “The reasons for this could be [cultural] or the.. difficulty of gathering evidence.”
Sexual harassment is a criminal offence under Congolese law. However, lawyers acting for those who have the courage to report cases struggle to collect and present evidence before a court.
“Gender-based crimes are often committed in the absence of a witness,” explained Eugène Buzaka, a lawyer working with victims of gender crimes in Goma.
The fact that the few women prepared to file a complaint often end up disappointed has further discouraged women from reporting cases.
“Because it is so difficult to gather evidence, many women who’ve looked to the courts don’t get justice. This deters other harassed women from proceeding with cases. They prefer to keep [their suffering] to themselves,” Justine Masika, a women’s rights activist in Goma, said.
Women’s failure to report cases has led to fears that the scourge of sexual harassment in Goma and other parts of eastern DRC will only get worse.
“If perpetrators are not punished then this sort of behaviour won’t stop,” Bodeli Dombi, of PSPE, said.
Ntambuka urges women to speak out and collect evidence to prevent further sexual harassment.
“As early as the first signs of sexual harassment appear, victims should have the courage to talk to someone, be it a friend or an association …I advise women not to withdraw into themselves,” Ntambuka said.
But it is not just women’s reluctance to speak out that prevents justice being done. Lawyers have raised concerns about inadequacies in investigative procedures.
“Other factors can result in lack of confidence in the administration of justice itself,” Buzake said. “There is no infrastructure that can facilitate cases being processed with the necessary protection of the victim and levels of confidentiality.”
In towns such as Goma, there is “no proper equipment, no formal training, [and] few female police officers or magistrates”.
However, Bodeli Dombi denied there were any technical or resource problems in investigating sexual harassment.
“Women generally do not get [the justice] they’re entitled to..as they go to court sometimes long after the abuse has been committed, ” he said.
“Justice is very slow that’s a fact - but when women come with evidence we do our best to see justice is done.”
Rehema Kabuo is an IWPR-trained reporter in eastern DRC.
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