I don’t often foray into African current affairs on this blog but as someone who has met and interviewed rape survivors in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, I just couldn’t stay silent about the results of the biggest rape trial in the DRC’s history.
In November 2012 M23 rebels captured the town of Goma in the eastern Democratic of Congo. Thousands of soldiers part of the Congolese military – the force which is meant to protect and help civilians living in the DRC – moved into Minova, a market town south of Goma. There, 39 members of the military raped 135 women and girls in the following days.
I have interviewed at least 30 female rape victims during my time working in Sierra Leone, Burundi and the DRC. Not one of these women ever saw their rapists brought to justice. Not one. And not one of the women even thought this was even a vague possibility. Their rapists had run off into the forest. More disturbingly, some rapists walked within their midst.
So, seeing the soldiers were being brought to justice, felt an important step forward. But, months on, the results of the DRC’s biggest rape trial have been bitterly disappointing.
Of the 39 soldiers on trial only 2 were found guilty, with a 24 further men convicted for other crimes, like looting.
At the trial guilt was often decided by whether the men were absent at their roll call by their superiors in 2012. It’s clear that many of the soldiers hold their superiors responsible, with some telling the BBC that they had felt “angry and humiliated”, when they were ordered by their superiors to begin raping women. No superiors were on trial.
Yes, the M23 rebels are finished, but there are other rebel forces still roaming the DRC, carrying out rape with relative impunity. And the military – which should serve and protect, but is likely feared by most women – seems to have emerged largely unscathed from the trial.
Rape is widespread in the DRC – especially in the east of the country. A study by The American Journal of Public Health published in 2011 estimated that nearly two million women out of a population of around 70 million population had been raped in their lifetime, with a rape occurring around every minute.
“There were so many men. You could have one man who had sex with you and then he left. Then, a second came and talked to you and then had sex and went back to his home. Then a third would come to you, talk and have sex with you and go to his home”.
That’s what a teenager told me when I was in the DRC in 2006 working for Save the Children to carry out research and interviews on sexual violence against women in the country. I met a woman who we called Aimerance (to protect her identity). For lack of a better term she was treated as a sexual slave to the rebel group (I couldn’t name the group for fear of identification and reprisals). She said: “They did what they wanted with me. We were only there to do what they wanted. Even if you refused, the men took you anyway – they would insist.”
What has changed for women like Aimerance since I carried out that interview eight years ago?
The women testifying at the trial covered their faces with dark cloths to avoid identification. But they took huge risks in order to bring their rapists to justice. To know that only two men were found guilty, and that the status quo of the military is pretty much unchanged must feel a bitter disappointment to them all. From here in the UK I share their bitterness.