In an area shattered by conflict, justice is reaching victims of sexual violence in the villages of Eastern Congo.
A mobile court in the South Kivu province, DRC has awarded reparations between 1,000 and 2,500 dollars to victims of rape in more than a dozen cases this week.
Judges of the mobile tribunal holding a session in the village of Kalehe, between Bukavu and Minova, convicted 16 men and one woman of rape on Monday. Five men were acquitted.
In a fully packed court room on a hill above the village, members of the community were following the trial which lasted more than a week. This week, the three judges announced the verdict, imposing prison sentences between 12 months and 14 years and ordering the payment of reparations.
Justice in conflict-affected area in Eastern DRC
The area has been affected by violence and instability. Until a few months ago, rebels controlled the region.
All cases adjudicated by the mobile tribunal in Kalehe concerned the rape of minors. For example, one of the men was convicted of threatening a girl on the street with a machete and raping her.
Other cases concerned sexual violence not directly linked to instability and conflict. A 38 year old woman, for example, was convicted because she slept with a 17 year old with whom she had a 15 months long relationship. The act was charged as rape because the boy, a minor at that time, was unable to give his consent, the state prosecutor argued.
Rare access to justice for sexual victims in Congo
In the rural areas of Eastern Congo, victims of sexual violence find it particularly difficult to see justice done. Stigmatization within their communities holds them back from reporting cases. If they decide to go to the police, they depend on the willingness of Congolese authorities to investigate the crimes. Even if the alleged perpetrators are identified and apprehended, they are sometimes released before a verdict is reached.
Who will pay reparations?
The trial in Kalehe is, therefore, an important signal to victims of sexual violence. Panzi Foundation, founded by Dr Denis Mukwege, has facilitated the organization of the mobile tribunal.
Given the poverty of families in the area, reparations can be a particularly meaningful way of supporting them.
Some of the perpetrators, however, appeared without shoes and in ripped t-shirts before the judges. They are very often as poor as the victims, making it unlikely that reparations will ever be paid.
Since there is little prospect that the Congolese State will cover them, justice for the victims likely remains unfinished.
A powerful tool particularly for victims of sexual violence, reparations should get greater attention by governments and the international community.
Photos: Mukwege Foundation / Benjamin Dürr