Cecile(not her real name) was celebrating the 2011 New Year in the town of Fizi in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) when a group of Congolese soldiers went on a rape spree. The men, operating under the command of rebel turned Congolese military leader Lt. Col. Kibibi Mutware, assaulted Cecile, who is in her 20s (she doesn't know her exact age), and dozens of other Congolese women. This is a disturbingly regular occurrence in the DRC, torn by a war that has dragged on for two decades, and where, according to a study from the American Journal of Public Health, a woman is raped nearly every minute.
The overwhelming majority of Congolese women who are raped never see justice, in part because the cost of bringing a court case can total more than $300 in a country where most people live on less than $2 a day. Making matters worse, many of the some 2 million rape victims live in rural areas hundreds of miles from the nearest courthouse.
Cecile was almost one of them. But through the grapevine of survivors and women's rights activists, Cecile made her way to SOFEPADI (translated from the French to Women's Solidarity for Peace and Integral Development), a coalition of 40 Congolese women's rights organizations that provides medical care, counseling, and legal aid to Congolese women. There, lawyers and advocates helped gather stories from Cecile and other women attacked by Mutware and his men, and connected victims with mobile courts. Those courts—which are supported by the American Bar Association and the Open Society Foundations but are run by Congolese lawyers and judges—go to rural areas in the eastern part of the country to bring criminal cases against accused rapists.
Forty-nine women, including Cecile, testified against Mutware and 10 of his soldiers—and won. Their victory, the first against a commanding officer for rape in the DRC, resulted in a 20-year prison sentence for Mutware. Eight of the 10 soldiers were also found guilty and jailed (with sentences ranging from 10 to 20 years). The women were to receive $10,000 each in reparations, but a majority, including Cecile, haven't been paid. Coming to their aid once again, SOFEPADI is pressing the government, which is responsible for the fees because the men were in the military, to pay up.
Today, SOFEPADI continues to advocate for victims by helping to arrange trials—even though many cases don't turn out in their favor. In February, 47 of some 1,000 men, women, and children raped by soldiers over the course of 10 days in 2012 testified at a trial in the town of Minova. Of the 37 soldiers accused, only two were convicted. "Once again, the Congolese justice system has not made the dignity of victims a priority," SOFEPADI president Julienne Lusenge said in a statement at the time. All the more reason why her organization's work is of the utmost importance. And it trickles down, too. Many of the women SOFEPADI has helped have paid the service forward by forming an association of survivors. "Because of all that we endured," Cecile says, "we understand that it's important for us to help others who have been raped."
You can donate to SOFEPADI through the Nobel Women's Initiative at nobelwomensinitiative.org; be sure to specify that the donation is for SOFEPADI.
Photo Credit: Diana Zeyneb Alhindawi