Behind bars for rape

GOMA, 7 July 2010 (IRIN) - In a country known as the most dangerous in the world to be female, the most unusual aspect of the story of convicted rapist Eleka Amungu is that he is behind bars.

In 2009 he raped a 15-year-old, one of thousands of women and girls in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) who were sexually assaulted last year. Amungu says he loved the girl very much but couldn’t afford to marry her.

“As I was poor I decided to take her by force,” he said. “I invited her to my room, and when she refused I forced her.”

Amungu says he knew before committing the rape that it was illegal. So why did he do it? “I was excited and know others who’ve done it and got away with it.”

The girl told her parents.

"I received a proposition from the family of the girl. The family said I could take her as a wife, but I couldn't pay to do that."

The parents told the police, who arrested Amungu. He is now nine months into a seven-year sentence for rape at the crumbling, overcrowded central prison in Goma, North Kivu’s capital city.

Among the 1,000 or so inmates crammed into a facility designed to house 150, some 300 have been accused, or convicted of rape. This figure is dwarfed by the 8,000 rapes estimated to have been committed in North and South Kivu in 2009 alone.

The great prevalence of rape in eastern DRC is widely attributed to its use as a weapon of war by the array of armed groups active in the region since the mid 1990s.

Amungu’s fellow inmates included a soldier, Chance, who is serving a 25-year sentence for rape.

"If they hadn't arrested me I wouldn't have known it was a crime," he told IRIN.
But a growing number of the convicts are, like Amungu, civilians.

New epidemic

Experts say a combination of impunity and the normalization of rape in a society exposed to sexual violence over many years are creating a new epidemic.

“Since last year we began seeing more civilian rapes,” said Janet Nsimire Nyenyezi, a counsellor at the Heal Africa hospital in Goma, which treats rape survivors. “Around 50 percent of our new cases are now committed by civilians.”

A recent report from the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative (HHI), Oxfam and Panzi Hospital, stated: "from 2004 to 2008, the number of civilian rapes in eastern DRC increased by an astounding 1,733 percent, or 17-fold, while the number of rapes by armed combatants decreased by 77 percent."The proportion of rapes that were committed by civilians rose from one percent to 38 percent over the same period, the report said.

“Young Congolese men have few positive pathways. They see the soldier or militiaman as a role model. Young men are seeing the most effective model as the criminal model,” HHI research coordinator Jocelyn Kelly told IRIN.

Disturbing trend

Hortense Kalamata, who runs a legal clinic for raped women in the town of Kiwanja, around 75km from Goma, points to another disturbing trend.

“We saw in April and May [2010] an increase in civilian rape. We’re not sure why, but what we also noticed is that many of the rapes by civilians are of children,” she said.

Heal Africa’s Nyenyezi tells the story of a nine-year-old girl brought to the hospital from the Masisi region. She was attacked in April by her neighbour.

“It was a terrible situation,” she said. “It was Sunday and the family was at church but the little girl was at home. The neighbour, who has three wives, called the girl to his house, took her clothes off and raped her while his own children played outside.”

The family waited three days to take the girl to a local hospital which transferred her to Heal Africa after seeing the severity of her injuries. She arrived leaking blood and urine, unable to stand. Two months later she is still recovering from the attack. A small, scared girl in a blue dress, she cannot talk about the incident. Nyenyezi speaks softly in her ear, trying to coax a smile. As a counsellor since 2006 she says it is her job to “listen deeply”.

Guy Charles Makongo, director of the American Bar Association’s rule of law initiative in Goma, rejects the contention that Congolese culture and customs help to fuel certain sex crimes.

“What motivates someone to rape a child? Custom doesn’t explain it,” he said. Under customary law you can take a girl of 14 or 15 years old, but the custom isn’t to take kids of three years old and rape them.”

Ignorant of the law

Some officials in DRC say the increase in the number of reported rapes by civilians reflects not so much a rise in their actual incidence as in the level of awareness of their illegality - a result of stringent sexual violence legislation passed in 2006. This law raised the age of consent to 18 and sets penalties for sexual assault ranging from 5-20 years.

But Kelly isn’t convinced. “It is true that more people are aware of the issue of sexual violence, and services that are available, and therefore more people are reporting attacks, but that’s not the only reason for the increase,” she said. “In fact, I think few average civilians in the east are aware of the actual law.”

She points out it is rarely enforced and when it is, the chaos in the DRC’s judicial system means that men are not often convicted. Little, it seems has changed, since the International Federation for Human Rights wrote (in Breaking the Cycle of Impunity, 2008): “In seeking justice, victims meet obstacles at every stage: legal costs are often very high; arrest warrants are often not executed - especially those against high-ranking soldiers in the national army; and the freedom of the accused can be bought or negotiated throughout the justice process, from the police station, to the courts, to the prisons.”

“Impunity is a reason that sexual violence has become permanent in this region,” said Liberta Rubumba Buratura, an official in the local government in Rutshuru. “When people are arrested for rape they are taken to Goma but you soon see them coming back.”

North Kivu’s provincial justice minister insists the problem is not only for the legal system to solve.

“We have to see how to educate our people,” said Francois Tuyihimbaze Rucogoza. “It’s not only a judicial problem but a social problem. We need to let people know that rape is a crime.”