Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
I first got the idea to write about violence against female prisoners while visiting my cousin, who was serving time in prison.
During these visits, I could see that some women were living with their children in prison and others were even carrying babies.
I asked myself: how is this possible? Do women become pregnant in prison? And, if this is the case, how can this happen? Do their husbands visit them?
These were just some of the questions that were going through my mind, but I found that I had no precise answer for them.
But, one day, I heard a radio programme, broadcast in Lubumbashi, which gave me more indication about what might be going on.
The radio programme said that a female prisoner had been raped by four policemen. The broadcast alleged that the four policemen, who were on night duty, went to an area close to Kasapa central prison in Lubumbashi with a female prisoner.
According to the programme, these men, having consumed large quantities of traditional Lutuku alcohol, raped the woman before fleeing the scene, leaving the injured woman on the ground.
After listening to this news item, I thought that it would be a good idea to investigate what was really going on in the prison at night, and whether women there were secure.
The news programme had planted the seeds of suspicion in my mind - that women serving time in prison face the threat of sexual violence by those in authority - but this wasn't enough. I also needed a witness from the prison who could speak about what was going on.
I got in touch with Christian, one of my brothers-in-law, who had spent a few months as an inmate at Kasapa. I asked him if he thought it would be possible to meet a former prisoner who might be able to speak about these crimes.
I was to be disappointed though. Christian told me that he was not aware of such a practice happening in the prison, and he said that he wasn't sure that the information broadcast on radio was accurate. He assured me that there was strong security at Kasapa.
But he added that a former unit chief might be able to give me information on the topic. A unit chief is a prisoner who takes responsibility for other inmates and their belongings and helps the guards to maintain discipline.
Christian told me he knew a former unit chief, Masudi Sangwa, who had spent several years at the prison.
We had some difficulty tracking him down. When we went to his home in Lubumbashi, we were told that he no longer lived there, but had moved to Kipushi, some 30 kilometres away.
Fortunately, we were given his address and, the following Sunday afternoon, we turned up at his house.
However, since it was the first time I had met him, Sangwa was reluctant to talk to me about the subject. He said that I should come back again another day. I returned despondently to Lubumbashi.
When I returned, without big expectations, I was pleased to discover that Masudi had decided to talk to me about his experiences in Kasapa.
He confessed to me that, at night, the prison hospital is transformed into a pub and hotel. He said that, in exchange for the money paid to policemen on duty that night, prisoners could choose any female inmate to sleep with, without the consent of the woman in question.
Masudi had corroborated what I had previously only suspected.
But this still wasn't enough. Now that I had my story, I still had to pay a visit to the prison to speak with the policemen and one of the directors there, in order to hear their side.
Unsurprisingly, the policemen denied that such a thing could happen in prison.
I tried to interview their commander, but he refused to speak to me. The policemen started to become angry with my questioning, and this made me think that my suspicions were probably correct.
I managed to speak to one of the prison directors in the administration office, who told me that, with the help of the United Nations mission in the Congo, MONUC, the hospital - where the prison rapes allegedly took place - would be renovated.
I took this to be his way of saying that the practice would end.
Finally, I spoke with some human rights activists who also gave me their opinions.
Gisèle Nsadi, a campaigner for women's rights, echoed my own observations when I embarked on my initial research.
"The facts are clear," she said. "When you visit the prison in the women's unit you see them with several children and most of them are born in prison."
Héritier Maila is an IWPR trainee reporter.
Link to original story by Heritier Maila published in AR No. 235, 5-Nov-09.
The Story Behind the Story gives an insight into the work that goes into IWPR articles and the challenges faced by our trainees at every stage of the editorial process.
This feature allows our journalists to explain where they get the inspiration for their articles, why the subjects matter to them, and how they personally have felt affected by the often controversial issues they explore.
It also shows the difficulties writers can face as they try to get to the heart of a story.
- Europe & Eurasia
- Latin America
- Middle East & North Africa
- Focus Pages
- Training & Resources
- Print Publications
- IWPR Spotlight