Often referred to as the “rape capital of the world,” the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) has yet to break free of its human rights crisis. In March of this year, our team of eight graduate students from the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University traveled to the DRC to research access to justice for survivors of sexual violence. Our research was part of a Capstone Workshop advised by Professor Yasmine Ergas and in collaboration with Physicians for Human Rights (PHR).
Our report reveals that, despite efforts to strengthen the judicial system, serious barriers to justice for rape survivors remain. In 2006, the country adopted a new constitution and two new laws to fight impunity for sexual violence. Since then, international and domestic organizations have helped support and reinforce the work that local mobile courts are doing to improve access to justice throughout the DRC. These mobile courts aim to bring justice to communities by convening trials, issuing judgments, and awarding victims monetary compensation; however, survivors almost never receive the reparations awarded to them in court.
In fact, the barriers to receiving compensation begin immediately after someone is raped. If a survivor of sexual violence is able to overcome the associated shame and stigma, and seek formal redress, he or she is often encouraged to utilize traditional justice mechanisms. Here, community leaders order the perpetrator to pay money or in-kind donations (such as cows) to the survivor’s family, or force the survivor to marry the perpetrator. Police often encourage these arrangements, taking bribes, fees, or a cut of the award along the way.
These traditional arrangements do not constitute justice. They benefit the survivor’s family rather than the individual survivor. Forcing a survivor to marry her aggressor does not provide redress. Moreover, bypassing formal prosecution undermines the rule of law.
Even when survivors successfully bring their cases to court, pervasive poverty, excessive post-trial complexities, and the lack of political will on the part of the Congolese government mean reparations are rarely delivered. When awarded, reparations can be incredibly high, ranging from $300 into the millions. However, before receiving reparations in court, victims must pay a number of fees, including six percent of the total reparation amount. Survivors can claim indigence to waive these fees, but this entails prohibitively complex paperwork, a task that is especially onerous for low literacy populations. These factors can compel survivors to refrain from even applying for reparations.
Significantly, our research revealed that there is no funding for the post-trial phase, so lawyers and victims’ advocates lack incentive to aid survivors after verdicts are delivered and survivors are often ill-equipped to navigate the bureaucratic maze themselves. After risking reprisals and shame, survivors ultimately receive nothing, which causes additional trauma and discourages others from pursuing legal redress.
Considering these barriers, our research team developed nine recommendations for international and domestic stakeholders, which demonstrate that immediate, practical steps can be taken to help bring justice to the countless survivors who have suffered for decades.
Ultimately, it is crucial that reparations, when awarded, are actually delivered to survivors. Without this final, but imperative, step in the formal justice process, there will be no meaningful peace and security in the DRC.