In early March, a large crowd gathered around the open sides of a makeshift courtroom in the eastern Congolese village of Kamanyola to witness the conclusion of a trial of 15 military officers accused of raping minors.
They stood silently, some craning to get a better view, as a soldier removed the epaulettes of a colonel who had just been dishonourably discharged from the army and sentenced to seven years in prison for raping a 14-year-old local girl last September.
“The fact that a very high-ranking officer has been sentenced sends a very clear message that no one is above the law,” said Judge Innocent Mayembe, who convicted 12 of the soldiers.
The trial, which lasted from February 27 to March 9, 2023, provided a rare opportunity for justice for rape victims in the conflict-torn eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, where an estimated 40% of women have experienced sexual violence in some form, according to a 2010 study published in The Journal of the American Medical Association.
Testimonies of victims
Several victims and one victim’s father testified during the trial, which was held in an open-air wooden structure, wearing specially designed hoods that obscured their faces — an indication of the stigma that prevents many from coming forward. “I no longer have any friends,” one of the victims said.
The local community hearings help “show people the need to speak up about cases of sexual violence,” according to lawyer Armand Muhima, whose organisation funded the trial.
“The goal… is to educate the public so that they understand that the law is there for everyone.” Muhima works for the Panzi Foundation, an organisation founded by Nobel Prize-winning gynaecologist Denis Mukwege to assist the hundreds of thousands of women who have been raped in eastern Congo since the region’s conflict began in the 1990s.
Crisis of sexual violence
The Second Congo War, which killed millions of people, ended formally in 2002, but Congolese forces are still fighting scores of armed groups in eastern regions, fueling the long-running sexual violence crisis.
The UN Joint Human Rights Office in Congo (UNJHRO) stated in a 2014 report on the fight against impunity for such crimes that some progress had been made.
However, “most cases of sexual violence are never investigated or prosecuted, and very few are even reported,” according to the report.
The same year, the government launched an action plan to combat sexual violence by military personnel, with hundreds of commanders agreeing to report cases.