Survivors of Sexual and Gender-Based Violence in the Congo Find Access to Justice

There are no court houses in Kalonge health district, a region home more than 130,000 people, high in the hills above Lake Kivu, eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Those seeking justice in Kalonge face a journey of at least 30 miles along poorly maintained roads that turn to muddy rivers during the rainy season. This is one of the reasons why so few women and men affected by sexual or gender-based violence (SGBV) in Kalonge have ever seen the perpetrators of violence punished by the Congolese legal system. Other barriers to securing justice that survivors of SGBV face include a lack of knowledge within the community about legal options available for SGBV survivors; cultural norms that discourage speaking publically about sexual violence or causing trouble in the community; and a lack of understanding among legal officials—including police, lawyers and judges—to the unique support that SGBV survivors need.

International Medical Corps’ work to treat and prevent SGBV in DRC began in 2002. We integrate services for SGBV survivors into our primary health care programs by training doctors and community health workers in SGBV response and sensitizing communities against SGBV through education and training. In addition to training medical professionals on how to administer post-rape kits and collect forensic evidence to prosecute crimes of sexual violence, International Medical Corps ensures that health clinics are supplied with the necessary medicine and equipment to comprehensively care for survivors of SGBV.

Further, SGBV survivors’ access to justice in Kalonge and other regions of eastern DRC is rapidly increasing thanks to a unique collaboration between International Medical Corps, the American Bar Association Rule of Law Initiative (ABA ROLI), the U.S. Agency for International Development and Clifford Chance, a global law firm headquartered in London. The project aims to raise awareness about DRC’s 2006 sexual violence law and legal consequences related to women’s rights and SGBV within the community; train legal officials in sensitive handling of SGBV cases; and, where appropriate, help survivors explore their options and support those who wish to pursue justice for crimes committed against them. The partners seek to provide medical care and legal assistance for survivors of sexual violence, psychosocial support for vulnerable women, and reach one million people in DRC with messaging against SGBV over the next five years. International Medical Corps and ABA ROLI have also supported the development of mobile courts by the Congolese justice system, with local judges, prosecutors, and defense counsel.

Dr. Picasso Mozusa Mukome, Chief of Kalonge Health Zone at an International Medical Corps- constructed hospital, is all too familiar with the suffering that high rates of SGBV cause in this region. He notes, “Because of this legal project, young men are afraid of judicial consequences if they attack women.”

International Medical Corps’ GBV volunteers help survivors understand their legal options and how to access support.

Access to justice in the Eastern Congo’s South Kivu Province will take another step forward this month as the construction of a permanent Community Resource Center (CRC) is completed in Cifunzi, a remote village near Kalonge where there are more than 50,000 people displaced by conflict, and a second CRC is completed in the neighboring health zone of Bunyakiri. The CRC, made possible by funding from Clifford Chance, will provide a central base for members of the community looking for information or legal services relating to SGBV. The site was chosen after extensive consultation within local communities to identify where it would be most accessible and the CRC has been endorsed by the local Muami, or village chief. Providing a space for trainings as well as a home for SGBV and legal advisors, the CRC is expected to become a hub for the whole community, particularly those in need of legal advice. A second CRC is also close to completion in the neighboring Bunyakiri health zone.

Richard Hoffman, International Medical Corps Chief of Party in Eastern DRC, explains the significance of the project:

Information about the Kalonge mobile courts is spread by International Medical Corps’ team of community “heroes”.

“The number of lawyers in this region is very small; understanding of the 2006 law [on sexual and gender violence] is patchy at best, and those lawyers and judges that we do have are not trained to be sensitive to needs of SGBV survivors. For there to be a permanent presence of skilled and appropriately trained professionals based in these remote communities is a huge development.”

Since the project began in 2011, eleven cases have been presented to mobile courts in Kalonge, with seven perpetrators convicted. A further 25 cases have been presented in Bunyakiri. Given the complexity of these cases and the barriers that exist to securing justice, this represents a significant achievement for communities in South Kivu.

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