DFJ & Eastern Congo Initiative
A commitment to peace, justice, and prosperity for women in eastern Congo.
Recently, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) pledged alongside other United Nations Member States to adopt the UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. This is a commitment by every member to help shape the future for the good of all.
At the heart of this mission lie the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which call for a peaceful, inclusive, and sustainable society. Addressing issues like poverty and violence — particularly, sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) — must include strategies that improve education, spur economic growth, champion health, and reduce inequality. The goal is equal access, rule of law, and justice for all.
For the women and children of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), a world without violence is not one they have ever known. Lamentably, the rates of sexual and gender-based violence have worsened over the past two decades, only exasperated by the armed conflicts endemic to the Eastern DRC. In North Kivu, for example, there are thousands of annual SGBV reports — each one representing a life and dignity that’s been unfairly violated.
To that, we say: “No more.”
Eastern Congo Initiative’s Role
We at Eastern Congo Initiative (ECI) are taking bold actions to combat the evils of rape and sexual slavery.
The women’s advocacy group, Dynamique des Femmes Juristes (DFJ), have partnered with ECI in shared purpose, placing an emphasis on legal support and prevention; primarily via awareness-raising endeavors and changing the social dialogue about equality between the sexes.
One of our mutual aims is to empower and support the vulnerable women and children in the territories of Nyiragongo and Masisi — in the province of North Kivu — who have been subjected to a plague of sexual and gender-based violence. In these efforts, Maître Claudine, founder of the Women Lawyers’ Movement (DFJ), has been a fearless champion for the aggrieved, seeking to raise awareness, inform vulnerable populations of their legal rights, and change the customs and social norms that infringe upon women's’ sacred rights and dignity. To that end, DFJ seeks to ensure equal access to the law and redress for survivors.
A Look at the Numbers
In 2006, the laws regarding SGBVs were strengthened, lending further protection to survivors and strengthening punishment on perpetrators. While this was an important first step, it was only a step. Since then, progress has been made. But the question remains — is every perpetrator facing the full consequences of their atrocious actions?As of now, the answer to that is no.
In North Kivu, for instance, only a minority of survivors of sexual violence receive any form of justice:
In 2017, there were 7,396 documented cases of gender-based violence (GBV) — 5,487 of which were cases of rape. Of those, only 1,145 survivors benefited from legal and judicial action.
In 2019, there were 2,792 recorded instances of GBV, of which 2,047 were cases of rape. Only 273 survivors received legal and judicial assistance.
In the first quarter of 2020, there were 1,792 cases of GBV, 999 cases of rape, and only 168 survivors who received assistance. Less than 10% were given aid.
Why is there such a large gap in access to justice?
Many of the survivors were assaulted by strangers. Others eschew initiating legal proceedings for fear of reprisals from the accused and their community. Some wish to preserve their dignity and avoid the shame and stigmatization of being a rape victim. And still others in rural areas — who are far from police stations and court rooms — dare not travel that great distance to civic centers, fearing yet another sexual assault on the long walk toward “justice.”
Most tragic of all are the women who’ve tried once before and were failed by the legal system. As a result, they flatly refuse to repeat what can be a humiliating and costly experience.
To right this grave wrong, we must take bold actions.
The Joint Mission of the DFJ and ECI
One of the primary reasons Maître Claudine established the DFJ was a feeling that too many of the efforts surrounding this issue were focused on investing in medical, psychosocial, and economic care for survivors, when in reality what they needed most was legal support. This left many poor and vulnerable with some forms of aid, yes, but little to no opportunity to receive legal justice since lengthy court cases are cost prohibitive.
In response, the DFJ stepped into that gap and promised free legal assistance to vulnerable women in communities across North Kivu.
It should be noted that, in 2014, the criminal procedure code regarding sexual assaults was revised. These measures sought to strengthen punishment for sexual assaults, protect the survivors’ dignity, guarantee legal and psychosocial assistance, speed up response times, and decrease the chances that the privileged perpetrators escape justice.
But did these updates lead to meaningful change?
Unfortunately, we at ECI believe that they’ve been inadequate — a bandaid on a grievous wound — primarily due to lack of enforcement. New investigative and procedural deadlines are rarely respected by the magistrates who manage the case — whether that’s due to corruption, a lack of motivation, or logistical support. And even the survivors that do receive proper attention are typically left alone in the complicated legal system, one that is continuously and purposefully extended or delayed by the defense in order to drain the survivors resources and willpower.
However, through the support of the DFJ and ECI, progress is being made, despite systemic obstruction and corruption. Together, we are embracing survivors, taking their hands in ours, and walking this journey together.
Even in the face of the coronavirus pandemic — which has paralyzed many humanitarian aid efforts — we refuse to let these women face the predators of the system by themselves.
In the fight to protect and support survivors, the DFJ has already achieved several substantial victories. In a few short years, more than 54 rape perpetrators have been brought to justice — many of whom are now serving lengthy sentences in the central prison of Munzenze.
Meet Uwizeye. This brave and beautiful 15-year-old girl was raped by a shepherd when she was returning from the field. Having previously attended awareness-raising sessions at Kitshanga Legal Clinic, she traveled back there and received the emotional, psychological, and legal support of the DFJ.
An integral part of her trauma was the undeserved shame placed upon her. As Uwizeye said, “I am so disappointed because I lost my virginity and I am not sure that I will find a man to marry me and even if I was married, what value will I have in the eyes of my husband, because I will no longer have a gift to give him.”
While psychological, spiritual, and physical wounds may never be fully healed, DFJ surrounded her with love, support, and resources, and will continue to do so far beyond the trial’s end.
For Uwizeye, some justice has been met. After transferring the case to the court in Goma, we achieved a 7-year sentence against the rapist, with a fine of 800,000 CFA (West African franc) and payment of damages in 5,000,000 CFA. The perpetrator of this great atrocity is now serving his well-justified sentence at Munzenze prison.
After the sentencing procedures, the brave Uwizeye returned to her home and school. With the love and support of her family, the DFJ, and ECI, she is gradually recovering and regaining hope for life. She is incredibly grateful for both initiatives’ financial, emotional, and spiritual support throughout this traumatic event.
Working Towards a Better Tomorrow
Going forward, we at ECI hope to create tens of thousands of similar success stories for the women and children of eastern Congo. No matter the trials or tribulations we face, our commitment to justice, peace, and prosperity will not falter. The work has just begun, and we need your support to continue this worthy pursuit.
If you’re interested in helping support the visionary organizations aiding Congolese communities, click here to donate and join our cause.
Together, we can continue pushing forth initiatives to inspire the necessary changes eastern Congo deserves.