Everyday hero: Defending human rights in Democratic Republic of Congo

After more than a decade of conflict in which rape has been widely used as a weapon of war, sexual violence and impunity remain high in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Congolese men and women are working tirelessly to eradicate this scourge. Here are some of their stories.

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Roselyne harbors SGVB survivors while they wait for the trial or because their family rejects them.

Roselyne is a paralegal in Kamanyola, South-Kivu. Her job is to assist survivors of sexual violence, listen to them, go with them to the hospital and write the files for the police. But her involvement goes far beyond that:

Sometimes I have to walk up to 25 km to meet a survivor, or pay for their transport. Today, I am accompanying 5 survivors who come to testify at the [UNDP-supported] Walungu mobile court. We are all happy that justice is being carried out and that the perpetrators are punished. I just wish they would be incarcerated far from here, as I often feel in danger when I hear about prison breaks. Everyone in my community knows I help survivors, and harbor them while they wait for the trial or because their family rejects them.”

Norbert Bisimwa Yabe Ntaitunda is a lawyer for the South Kivu Bar Association, one of UNDP’s partner for legal aid in DRC.

The South Kivu Bar Association operates free juridical clinics for the poor. Norbert is currently working on the Kavumu Trial of crimes against humanity, for rape perpetrated against 46 minors and the possession of weapons of war.

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Norbert works pro-bono to assist SGVB victims.

Through your job as a lawyer, how do you help address domestic violence and sexual gender-based violence?

The bar of South Kivu plays a big role in ensuring a fair trial. It intervenes in favor of the victims by giving them pro-bono lawyers and also provides lawyers for the defendants.

Our Free Consultation Office is open three times a week to welcome the poor in need of legal and judicial assistance. We also partner with UNDP for the Tupinge Ubakaji Project. A public hearing was organized in Luvungi and another in Walungu on the issues of sexual and gender-based violence. Several lawyers have been committed to assist the victims.

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A Ministry of Justice lorry drops off soldiers on security duty for the day. © Aude Rossignol/ UNDP Democratic Republic of Congo

What are you doing to change perceptions and attitudes towards violence against women?

My motivation for fighting against sexual gender-based violence is first and foremost personal: I am the father of nine children, including seven girls. I could not bear that any of my daughters should ever be a victim of sexual and gender-based violence.

What is your advice for people worldwide who will read your story? What is the one thing they can do to help reduce violence against women and girls?

Illiteracy and extreme poverty among women make them more vulnerable to this type of violence. It is intolerable. It is our duty as lawyers to raise awareness about the family code and existing laws on rape and sexual violence. We have to make people understand and abide laws that put an end to backward traditions and customs, like the marriages of minors for example. What also needs to change is the lack of consideration for women who do all the work at the level of the family.

Joseph Nganiza is a UNDP Transitional Justice expert. He works in Bukavu and is involved in various Access to Justice projects, most of all related to sexual gender-based violence.

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The contribution of women is considerable in Congolese society. If violence is done to women, it is made to men, to society, to the nation and to development in general.

Through your job as a jurist, how do you help address domestic violence and sexual gender-based violence?

I embraced a career as a lawyer because I think that only justice raises a nation. Justice intervenes in all aspects of life. Justice does not have a sex. If we restore justice, we restore development, we restore the dignity of man.

What are you doing to change perceptions and attitudes towards violence against women?

I am a leader in my religious community, and I speak in favor of equal opportunities for men and women. I try to emulate this at work and in my family.

If you go around the jurisdictions in the DRC, you’ll see very few women. For a training of 60 magistrates there are only 2 or 3 women and we have to negotiate a lot for them to be there. Our actions need to be much more oriented towards decision-making institutions for change. We should boost institutions and laws to better integrate women in the field of justice and training for magistrates.

What are the top three things women need to feel safe and confident to participate in daily life in your community?

The less economically secure the woman, the more difficulty she will have to assert her rights. There are too many places where a woman cannot find work easily, where she cannot be accepted in positions of responsibility. We cannot advance legal and justice aspects without tackling economic inequality. The more economically vulnerable women are, the more they will be marginalized and vulnerable to violence.

How to restore the confidence of victims in communities?

Implement and enforce court decisions. Currently it is only the penal servitude that is executed, there is no financial compensation awarded to the victims yet. If this becomes a reality, it will restore confidence in our efforts and allow victims to regain a positive image.

Interviews and photos: Aude Rossignol and the team at UNDP Democratic Republic of Congo.

Translation from French into English & copyediting: Laurence Lessire/ UNDP

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