KINSHASA, Democratic Republic of the Congo — For many survivors of sexual violence in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), justice is never served. Stigmatization and marginalization are the norm for women, girls, men and boys who have suffered from the experience and aftermath of sexual violence at the hands of rebel group and state military soldiers alike.
These are the reasons why Julienne Lusenge and 24 other Congolese women formed SOFEPADI, or Female Solidarity for Integrated Peace and Development, better known in French as Solidarité Féminine pour la Paix et le Développement Intégral.
SOFEPADI was founded in 2000 and since 2003 has focused its efforts in the tumultuous eastern region of the DRC, particularly the Ituri and North Kivu provinces, which share borders with Uganda and Rwanda.
Disturbing reports by the American Public Health Association estimate that between 2006 and 2007, more than 400,000 women were raped in the DRC–about 48 women per hour. These numbers have not improved much over the years as the country; especially in the city Goma of the eastern region, which has regrettably become known as the “rape capital of the world.”
To make matters worse, survivors are often disowned or shunned by their families after being raped due to serious gender inequalities in Congolese society.
SOFEPADI is made up of 40 different Congolese women’s organizations seeking to raise awareness about sexual violence in the DRC and provide support for victims. One of its main functions is to help survivors bring their cases before the Congolese court system to seek reparations.
Mobile Judicial Tribunals are one of the most common court mechanisms in rural parts of the eastern region where there is either no court system or inadequate infrastructure for it. The mobile courts are operated by Congolese lawyers and judges who try to bring to trial those accused of rape in the region.
Retaliation against victims that speak up and attempt to bring charges against perpetrators is also common; therefore, SOFEPADI seeks to protect those who wish to speak out so that further harm does not come to them. Perpetrators, for the most part, are not held accountable for their crimes, which is especially true for high-ranking military officers, as a recent report by Human Rights Watch explains in detail.
Impunity for crimes of sexual violence in the DRC creates a culture where rape is treated as acceptable. Therefore, SOFEPADI not only seeks to combat the impunity for sexual violence in Congolese society but also the cultural and societal practices that allow gender inequalities to continue and constrain women. Some of these practices come from family codes that prevent women from eating and drinking certain foods, allow men to marry girls as young as 14 and classify married women of all ages as minors, preventing them from owning their own property.
As a result of these negative perceptions toward women, a significant majority of court cases do not turn out in the victims’ favor. In those cases in which perpetrators are found guilty of their crimes and survivors are promised payment as reparation, SOFEPADI works to make sure that survivors receive the payment promised by the government. While there have so far been no cases in which survivors have actually received payment from the Congolese government, SOFEPADI never gives up trying to get survivors the reparations they were promised.
In addition to assisting with lawyers and court proceedings, SOFEPADI also helps victims obtain emergency medical care and counseling. SOFEPADI pays for all medical bills, counseling, lawyers and court fees for its clients.
Survivors that meet through the organization have also taken to forming associations through which they empower and support each other. These groups play an important role in changing societal perceptions so that communities accept rather than marginalize survivors.
SOFEPADI also lobbies the local and federal governments in the DRC, as well as actors in the international community, in order to raise awareness about the realities of sexual violence in the country.
The organization won the Human Rights Award from the Embassy in France for its work in 2012 and its president Julienne Lusenge was selected as a Knight of the Legion of Honor by the French government in 2013. The Legion of Honor is the highest decoration given by the French government and the degree of Knight is the first of five degrees of the honor that can be given.
In an interview with Jennifer Allsopp from Open Democracy 50.50, Lusenge says that some progress has been made with regard to changing societal perceptions of survivors of sexual violence, although there is still much more to be made. Human Rights Watch also records some, albeit slow, progress in holding perpetrators accountable and provides suggestions for reforming the Congolese justice system so that more can be made.
– Erin Sullivan