Impunity is something that is mentioned often when discussing the issue of sexual violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo. It is thrown around at Congressional hearings and discussed at round tables of well-meaning NGO types like myself.

According to the dictionary, it means:

1. exemption from punishment.
2. immunity from detrimental effects, as of an action.

The nightmare that exist here in the Congo is much, much worse than that.

Exempt from punishment doesn’t begin to describe. We met last week with a lawyer in Kisangani, the focal point for Sexual and Gender Based Violence – otherwise known as SGBV – a neat and tidy acronym that is used to refer to atrocities of the worst kind against humanity.

About three quarters of the way through the meeting, I paused. Contemplating what to do next. Most often when I’m meeting with a stakeholder of some kind, my aim is to get their opinions and ideas about how to address programmatic issues to ensure that the design of our interventions are sound. In this case it was clear that the solutions were far from within reach.

The basic situation around the legal aspect of sexual violence goes something like this here in DRC. A man attacks a woman on her way back from farm or collecting firewood, a child is molested by their relative or community member, a teen is chosen for marriage by being violently attacked and raped; the scenarios are endless, and all equally disturbing.

From there, most of the time women and girls will say nothing and do nothing. There are medical interventions that can help to prevent pregnancy and the transmission of HIV if the case is reported with 72 hours; this rarely, rarely happens.

It is easier to say nothing. That is unless there are consequences that can’t be hidden, such as pregnancy. According to the stats, the number of women that become pregnant due to rape in DRC seem extraordinarily high; unless you realize that this is just because women were more likely to report as they couldn’t go on unnoticed by the community.

Dr. Mkwege, who has become famous for his life and disgrace saving interventions to repair traumatic fistula cases, puts it pretty bluntly. Women don’t come unless they are bleeding. Unless is it so bad that they can’t take it. Otherwise they suffer in silence or deal with it amongst female family members.

If they come forward and they are a woman, they are likely to be thrown out of the house by their husbands and families. There have been cases known where community leaders have forced raped women to walk through the community naked to show their disgrace even more publicly.

If it is a teen aged girl, the consequences are extreme. Culturally the answer is that if a girl comes forward, they will be forced to marry the rapist. Some even say that this is how a man is able to select their wife. If they are able to rape the girl, then she is his; if she gets away then she has refused the marriage.

After the initial ordeal of dealing with the trauma and stigma of being raped, most do not pursue legal prosecution. If they do, the cycle of abuse just really continues further. Hopefully survivors will have access to programs that help provide assistance to pursue prosecution, but these are still few and far between.

If they don’t have assistance, they will have to pay for the lawyers, judges, transportation fees, to get the rapist to court, the list of expenses goes on. Then the perpetrator will most likely do his own part to pay off the various players; the judge, the lawyers, or even the doctor to change the medical paperwork to make the case disappear.

If a case is successfully prosecuted, you might be lucky if the man stays in jail for a night or two. They will either be released within a couple of days, because the jails are too full, or they will escape since there is extremely poor security to retain prisoners.

They walk free. Right back into the communities where they raped the woman in the first place.

That is the definition of impunity.


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