SOS Children's Villages reports on a new initiative to teach Congolese women and girls to take rape cases to court:
Sebbabi told villagers rape victims need to do three key things after an attack. First find medical help and take an HIV test. The next step she advised potential victims to take was to contact an aid organisation that deals with in human rights. And finally, the most important step to take, she said is to bring charges against the attacker.This is a noble effort to end the culture of impunity that surrounds rape in much of the eastern D.R. Congo. However, a key piece of the puzzle is missing here: the vast majority of Congolese courts aren't equipped to give rape victims justice.
SOS's efforts are in Katanga. I've never been to the areas in which they're conducting this training, but there's little reason to believe that the justice systems in rural Katanga function any better than they do in the Kivus.
By and large, Congolese courts are not places in which justice is dispensed. Instead, they are a kind of quasi-institutional shell of the former structures. Because the Congolese state does not collect taxes that are then dispensed to the courts via budget and salary structures, anyone wishing to have a case heard must pay all court costs out-of-pocket. This means paying everything from the judge's salary to the court's costs for photocopies, candles or electricity, and any other incidental expense. Costs mount quickly; a land case can cost as much as $40,000 just to be heard by a judge.
But that's not the only problem in the Congolese justice system. In almost every court, judges accept bribes and make their decisions based on the outcome of bidding wars between the plantifs and the defendants. Winning bribes can be as little as $10-20 (which was enough to release a rapist in a case some friends dealt with in Goma in 2007) or can reach into the tens of thousands of dollars when the land rights to a Masisi cattle farm are at stake. Remember - Congolese judges are generally not paid the salaries they're owed by the state, so they depend on the income from court costs and bribes for their families' well-being.
The ineffectiveness of the courts in actually delivering justice is why many Congolese prefer to seek justice through traditional means, as the SOS story notes:
...even though it is illegal to come to an arrangement when a rape case is brought, the Congolese traditionally settle...sexual assault cases through their own customs. Also, a victim’s parents can force the rapist to marry her, after having been compensated both in kind and in cash. These kind of arrangements also bring the added problem that they can encourage rapists to rape again. "Here, you pay money, five goats, a rush mat and a loincloth to purify the image of the girl who has been dishonoured," a young man told Associated Press news agency.These means of attaining justice are problematic for very clear reasons, but they also work, at least to the extent to which the rapist is held accountable and is unable to buy his way out of all responsibility. If you were a Congolese rape victim or part of her family, which would you choose?
As with everything else in the DRC, the problem of holding rapists to account requires a complex solution. There are some efforts underway to build capacity and accountability in the courts, including an excellent effort by the American Bar Association, especially via its mobile courts program. Simple measures like DNA testing for rape victims can only help to end the culture of impunity.
But ensuring justice for all Congolese victims of violence ultimately requires more than reliance on a non-functioning judiciary. It requires rebuilding the state to the extent that the judiciary exists to promote the common good rather than to sell justice to the highest bidder. How do we do that?