Storm Over Congolese Child Brides

Bukama residents furious with magistrates investigating unlawful unions.
By Héritier Maila - International Justice - ICC
ACR Issue 280,
6 Dec 10

Magistrates in Bukama territory, in the south-east of the Democratic Republic of Congo, DRC, who prosecuted two men implicated in the marriage of underage girls have been attacked by angry mobs, highlighting the tensions between traditional practices and the rule of law.

Locals say the marriage of children to men is common in Bukama - but following the establishment of a magistrates office there in September, officials have begun investigating such unlawful unions and making arrests.

Last month’s violence blew up after two men were imprisoned for marrying a nine-year-old and a 13-year-old girl respectively, acts considered to be crimes of sexual violence according to a new Congolese law, which sets the age of consent at 18.

After the girls’ husbands were tried and sentenced to 20 years each in prison, three magistrates involved in the case were attacked in their homes and had their offices ransacked and set on fire by an angry mob.

“With the help of the [United Nations] mission for stability in the Congo, I was brought to the Don Bosco hospital in Lubumbashi to get appropriate care,” said Bukama magistrate Charles Kabozia as he lay in his hospital bed, his face and back marked with wounds.

“In this country honest people are not liked. I was beaten up only because I did my work correctly. These vandals even destroyed Bukama’s prosecution office.”

Kabozia’s home was also set on fire by the angry crowd. So far, no arrests have been made in connection with the attacks.

“How can those who render justice be attacked?” asked Esabe Kamulete, the general prosecutor of Katanga’s appeal court.

“We must rigorously eradicate sexual violence in this country. We will not step back because of this intimidation. We will do everything with the help of the police to deploy a special team to go down to Bukama, find these criminals, arrest them and put them on trial.”

Mireille Kilufya, from the Centre for the Social Integration of Abandoned Women, an NGO advocating women’s rights, said that Bukama magistrates should have received more support from the police and local government, both in raising awareness of the new law and in enforcing it.

“Considering how things turned out, it can be said that there has been a certain passivity of police forces and administrative authorities who did not assist magistrates,” Kilufya said.

“This is the right occasion to encourage magistrates and all those who are in charge of the application of the law to keep working for [it], on the one hand, and explain to the population the new law on sexual violence, since it is difficult and not known by everybody. Some mentalities should be changed, especially in remote regions.”

Kabozia said locals are wholly opposed to sexual violence perpetrators being arrested.

“For Bukama’s inhabitants, getting married to a 13-year-old is normal since it is has always been done,” he said. “The population does not understand how and why this can be in breach of the law. And this practice belongs to their tradition.”

Matthieu Monga, from Bukama, who now lives in Lubumbashi, typifies local attitudes.

“I don't see what's wrong with these kinds of weddings,” he said. “Where is the problem if someone marries a girl under 18? We have our traditions that we shouldn't lose.

“These days, everything is dramatised. Our grandfathers used to marry girls of 13, 14 or 15 and they had babies without any problem. Why should it be a problem today? My mother is now 60, and she told me that my father married her when she was 15. We are 12 children from this union.”

Guy Kalunga, a shopkeeper living in Bukama who comes to sell his goods in Lubumbashi, said the authorities’ failure to inform the public about the law was at the heart of the problem.

“It is a problem of information,” he said. “The advertising of laws is not done within Katanga province. Bukama’s population is not informed about the law on sexual violence. In this region, it is normal to marry a girl younger than 18.”

Héritier Maila is an IWPR-trained journalist in Lubumbashi.