Global justice for rape survivors demands extraordinary efforts

In places where legal systems routinely fail, alternatives outside law needed

June 19, 2014 1:45AM ET
Emiliana Azemahi, age 14, sits with her 10-month-old baby Moises in her room on November 1, 2007, in Bukavu, DRC. Emiliana was abducted and held for about 3 weeks in 2006. She was raped and abused for weeks by rebels before being released. She later became pregnant and gave birth to Moises in early January 2007. She now lives in a safe house in Panzi, outside Bukavu, DRC.
Per-Anders Pettersson / Getty Images

In the city of Bukavu in the Democratic Republic of Congo, a woman I’ll call Camille (all the Congolese women in this story have asked to use pseudonyms) told the story of her rape. Soldiers affiliated with Paul Salada, a militia leader, kidnapped her when she was 16. Held for months, she was raped repeatedly, some days by as many as 10 men. She became pregnant from the rapes and eventually chased out of the camp. Camille gave birth and is raising her child alone.

Two decades of war, millions of deaths and displacements, endemic poverty and perpetually weak governance mean the many Congolese women who are raped every day — one estimate from 2011 put the number at 48 women raped every hour — rarely see their attackers prosecuted. Too often, the victims are ostracized and left to recover with few medical, legal or psychological resources.

But legal systems don’t fail sexual assault survivors just in the DRC. Even nations with entrenched and functional criminal justice systems regularly drop the ball when it comes to violence against women. To be sure, if we are to get serious about helping survivors, we need to strengthen their legal rights. But we should also be looking outside the justice system to help facilitate healing in the many instances where justice is a dream or a farce. 

International epidemic

Hundreds of miles north of the DRC is Morocco, where Erin Helfert was living in 2008. Helfert, an American who was researching gender-based violence, went to a party at a U.S. diplomat's house in Casablanca and was raped by a member of the household staff. She immediately told the host about her assault and asked him to bring her to the hospital or the police. He refused and told her that if he were in her shoes, “I would be asking myself what I could have done to prevent this from happening to me.”

In Morocco, rape is a crime against public morality and not a crime against a person. Rapists who attack virgins thus see harsher penalties than rapists who attack women who have had sex. For years, rapists could avoid prosecution if they married their victims, a loophole the government is only now closing after a 16-year-old girl killed herself after marrying the man who had repeatedly raped her. The Moroccan system also requires proof of nonconsent (often impossible) and prosecutes consensual sex outside marriage, making many women hesitant to bring rape charges.

Helfert went to the police anyway. They were professional, she said, but not particularly sensitive, asking her to re-enact the assault. When they arrested the man two days later, Helfert had to confront and accuse him directly.

“He subsequently spat on me and called me various names in French and Arabic,” she said. The police let him go two days later.

After taking several afternoons off to follow up with the police, Helfert eventually had to tell her employer what was going on; she was fired soon after. Local women’s organizations, even those with which she had been working, were either unable or unwilling to assist. And when Helfert, a U.S. citizen, asked for help from her own government, she was almost entirely ignored.

Gender-based violence isn't a Moroccan or Congolese or American problem; it's a global problem demanding global solutions.

Helfert’s story is relatively unusual, while Camille’s is disturbingly common in her country. Camille never saw legal justice. Helfert’s attacker was eventually sentenced to six years.

But across an ocean from Morocco and the DRC, Helfert found the U.S. Department of State just as inhospitable to rape survivors as the Moroccan courts. She spent thousands of dollars flying to and from Morocco to pursue her case, showing up at every hearing despite repeated delays. Some nations help citizens who are raped abroad by sending legal advocates to work within the local justice system or by updating victims about the status of their cases; the U.S. does not. Helfert had to collect DNA evidence herself and advocate for it to be tested in the U.S. and then sent to Morocco — she showed up at the State Department every day until it happened. It took five years for her to see a conviction. Most Moroccan women don’t see even such a tardy victory and lack the resources to so doggedly pursue it.

Gender-based violence isn’t a Moroccan or Congolese or American problem; it’s a global problem demanding global solutions — part of which is integrating survivors’ experiences and needs into reforms.

“I feel emboldened by this experience,” Helfert said. “I’m a survivor, but what a waste for my own life if I had to go through all of this and there’s nothing else I can do.” 

Women, the ones who show up

Sexual violence survivors face backward laws, patriarchal, rape-abetting cultures, misogynist social norms and hostility toward female bodily integrity almost everywhere. Such violence varies in type, scope and cause, but women in no nation live free of it.

Despite that reality — or perhaps because of it — collectives of women in nearly every country mobilize to seek justice where the state fails.

At the gathering of rape survivors in the DRC where I met Camille, other women shared stories. Raped while fetching firewood. Raped while getting food for the children. Tied to a tree and raped.

One woman’s story was five words long: “I’m called Marie. It’s tough.” She started to cry and bowed her head.

Then there was Adele. She had short hair and wore gold bangles on one wrist and bright orange earrings. She spoke clearly and forcefully.

“I was raped when I was still very young, so I grew up here in Bukavu in Panzi hospital,” she said, referring to a hospital known worldwide for its work repairing obstetric fistulas, a condition wherein a hole develops between the vagina and the rectum, often leaving women incontinent. “I have already been operated on 10 times, because they destroyed me completely.”

“They” refers to the soldiers who kidnapped Adele, her sisters and her uncle and took them to a camp in the woods, where the girls were stripped naked and tied together with their legs open. Adele was raped for weeks and became pregnant. After she escaped, her baby was born dead. The delivery left her with a fistula. She made it to Panzi hospital, where she was a patient for seven years.

She told her story without flinching. “I think that you may see me as strong,” Adele said. “But I was just like other women that are here.” 

To fill gaps in the legal system, women’s rights advocates in the eastern Congo battle rape stigma by creating extralegal means of achieving justice.

The difference, she said, came from the therapy and support she received from local organizations, including SOFEPADI, a Congolese nonprofit coalition of 40 women’s organizations that offers legal, medical, financial and psychosocial assistance to rape survivors in the eastern Congo; and City of Joy, which provides survivors with live-in psychological care and skill building. Adele took a literacy course and now works as a supervisor at City of Joy, helping other survivors cope with trauma.

An extralegal system

In the eastern Congo, mobile courts (where Congolese judges and attorneys travel to rural areas to try accused rapists) are trying to bring legal proceedings to women themselves, instead of forcing rape victims to come to the larger cities to find justice. It’s crucial work that has been too slow going, despite support from the Open Society Justice Initiative and the American Bar Association. To fill the gaps, local women’s rights advocates battle stigma by, for example, featuring rape survivors’ stories on local radio shows and creating local extralegal means of achieving justice. According to Sharanjeet Parmar, an international human rights lawyer working in the DRC, the organization Save the Children organized local children’s committees in North Kivu province to identify alleged rapists and abusers.

“The community decided, we are going to put into place our own accountability mechanisms because we can’t rely on the legal system,” Parmar said. If a person who has been found responsible for sexually assaulting a child goes into a shop, she said, “he won’t be served in the shop. If he goes into the market he won’t be able to enter. It’s a shaming mechanism installed by communities. This touches directly on the livelihood and social life of the perpetrator. It’s a form of excommunication.”

Morocco’s legal reforms can largely be credited to local feminist organizations, some working in partnership with large NGOs, but many operating on a shoestring budget. Those groups continue to push to improve the legal code, but also help sexual violence survivors deal with the police and the courts. Such efforts, however, are woefully underfunded and under-supported, and, as Helfert discovered, they don’t get to as many women as are in need.

Their limited reach makes even more important the community-based networks of survivors and survivor support that (even if they don’t have a website or NGO status) exist in every country. Those networks are directly responsive to the specific challenges of a particular place, whether it’s sexual assault within a community, rape as a weapon of war in the DRC or virginity-based sentencing laws in Morocco. Governments, funders and international organizations interested in combating sexual violence should look at what already works in different places, strengthen those efforts and connect them with more formal governmental, NGO and legal structures. The proposed International Violence Against Women Act would also help to make combating gender-based violence a priority in U.S. foreign aid.

Adele credits her healing to women-run NGOs and not the legal system. Telling her story is still difficult, she said, but she chooses to keep talking because she believes it will help women everywhere — and that helps her. “Through all of this work,” she said, “we really are seeing that tomorrow is another day.” 

Jill Filipovic is a lawyer and writer. She blogs at Feministe and is a weekly columnist at The Guardian. She was the recipient of a 2013 United Nations Foundation reporting fellowship in Malawi. 

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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