This post originally appeared on the blog of the Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa.
Over the past three years, I have been a regular visitor to South Kivu Province to watch mobile gender courts in action. These courts—and other justice initiatives—have begun to provide some justice for rape survivors in eastern Congo by holding civilian and military trials in remote parts of the region. Three hundred cases have come to court through the Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa–funded mobile court project alone. Hundreds of violent offenders are now behind bars.
But this time, I have come to see another part of the project in action—the legal aid clinic in the second largest town of Uvira (there is also one in the provincial capital, Bukavu). Established just six months ago, these clinics have been described as the "bridge" between the community and the courts.
And in the last six months, another critical step has been taken with the establishment of legal aid clinics in Uvira and Bukavu—the two biggest towns in the province. These clinics have been described as the "bridge" between the community and the courts.
This is how they work. People—mostly women and children who have been raped—come to the local state hospital in Uvira and are admitted. After examination and treatment, the doctors or medical staff ask them if they are willing to have a lawyer from the legal aid clinic see them.
The legal aid clinic has a consulting room in the hospital, right next to one of the largest wards for women and children—and it is here that I meet the project lawyer, Maitre Daniel, and the psychologist, Dr. Ernest. They say that on average they receive between 10 and 15 referrals a month and that they follow each person's case through to the trial stage—when the matter is heard at one of the mobile gender courts.
Both say that there is still a serious stigma associated with reporting rape and that perhaps twice as many women and children are at the hospital but choose not to take their cases forward. Indeed, it is remarkable how many survivors do seek justice since reporting rape, pursuing the legal process, and testifying in court takes extreme courage and perseverance.
But the legal aid clinic definitely helps. It provides rape survivors with ongoing support—covering their medical expenses, providing daily psychological services and supplying all legal services, including assistance in court.
The provision of psychological services is something new for this OSISA project and I witness the value of it when Gaston, a four-year-old boy, who was repeatedly raped, lights up when Dr. Ernest enters the room. He immediately follows him and I hear him chattering to the psychologist. When the doctor is not around, he is extremely subdued.
I am told that two weeks ago the boy and his father arrived at the clinic. They live over 250 kilometers away but the father was adamant that his son should be helped. He cuts a lone figure amongst all the women and girls.
Dr. Ernest says that when they first came the father spoke of suicide; he was deeply traumatised and ashamed that his boy had been raped. After two weeks of support and therapy he is aware of how the legal process will work and is strongly supportive of the prosecution of a recently arrested suspect. The clinic will work with the police and investigate the matter, preparing a dossier for prosecution. The matter will be referred to the next mobile court session that will be held close to the boy's home. When Gaston has to testify, Dr. Ernest will be with him throughout.
Another case involves a young woman named Natalie, who has just given birth to a baby—the baby resulted from her rape. The perpetrator has been arrested and found guilty and is serving a jail term. But the clinic did not abandon Natalie after the trial came to an end. Her psychological support is on-going as she is battling feelings of rejection towards the baby. The legal aid clinic covered her medical expenses for the birth of the baby and is monitoring her progress.
Naomi's case is very different. She is four and tiny. She was raped over a 12 hour period and locked in a toilet, left for dead. The only people she responds to are her mother and Dr. Ernest. She sits on her bed in the ward wiping back tears. It is difficult to imagine what would happen to her in this ward full of sick children if the clinic was unable to provide special care for her. It is still too early to begin preparing her for court. The lawyers are working with her mother but it will be a while before she will be able to speak to anyone other than Dr. Ernest. The clinic has begun the investigation into her case and an arrest has been made.
When I meet later with the director of the hospital Dr. Yves, I ask him whether there has been an increase in civilian rapes or whether perpetrators are still primarily Congolese military or ex-militia that have been integrated into the army. This part of the Congo has a complicated military history and the on-going conflict has resulted in many hundreds of thousands of women being raped. Sexual violence against women remains shockingly commonplace and over the years he has been at the Uvira hospital, Dr. Yves has seen a large number of women pass through his care.
He says that the answer is a complex one. He is indeed seeing more cases of civilian rape and often the perpetrators are known to the victim. But often they are "bandites," young men who were child soldiers in the militia and when integration occurred they had nothing to do as they could not be integrated into the Congolese army. This is one of the terrible legacies that the war in the eastern Congo has left.
We speak about the value of the legal aid clinic. He says it is the first time in the hospital's history that it has ever had such a clinic and that it would be "catastrophic" if it were to close. There can be no doubt that in this part of South Kivu, which is so deeply scarred by sexual and gender based violence, this project adds value.
True there is an enormous amount that still needs to be done but every little bit helps—to provide survivors with hope, to rebuild people’s belief in justice and to show that progress is possible. And the costs are minimal—particularly when you see the impact the clinic has on people’s lives