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Rapes, Retribution in the Democratic Republic of Congo

Five years after officials in the Democratic Republic of Congo passed stricter laws against sexual violence, there are more criminal prosecutions - including prosecutions of soldiers. The central prison in North Kivu is packed with men convicted of rape. But lawyers and victims say lawlessness in the countryside means many rapists still act with impunity. And they note the international pressure to stop rape in Congo has led to unintended consequences and a whole new set of challenges.

Instances of sexual violence improve for some

Officials and activists agree: things are better than they used to be in Eastern Congo. If rape victims can physically get to the court or to the hospital, many find help -- and some even find justice.

But victims say in the countryside, conflict still rages, and rape is still a weapon of war.

"I was married and I was pregnant. Rebel soldiers came to loot and they raped me," one victim stated. "It killed my baby and now I have a disease."

North Kivu's Minister of Justice, Francois Tuyihimbaze Rucogoza, says it is still difficult to get to the victims because most live deep in lawless rural areas. But he says Congo’s 2006 rape law has slowed the rate of attacks, because people now know if they rape, there is a chance they may go to jail. "The military helps impose justice in places we cannot go. For example, where there is a military operation, they help us punish the perpetrators of sexual violence," he said.

Rape laws, unintended consequences

While tougher rape laws are helping battle the problem, these same rape laws have had unintended consequences.

Officials say the laws do not distinguish between violent sexual assault and sex under age 18 -- Congo's age of consent.

But it's not uncommon here for girls as young as 15 to be married. Under the law, that makes young husbands technically guilty of rape.

Kakule, a convict in the central prison -- like many of his fellow inmates -- says he is only guilty of marrying young, and not being able to afford to pay a dowry. "I went to my girlfriend's family to propose marriage, but I had nothing to give for a dowry. When her family realized we were still together, they accused me of rape," he said.

Jules Simpeze, the region's Justice Ministry detention specialist, says the real perpetrators of sexual violence are seldom arrested. "Women get attacked when they go to the fields. If they report the rape and seek treatment and justice, then they go home," she explained.

Seeking justice

Victims seeking care in a hospital say aid workers found them in the countryside and brought them to the city for help. Some of them plan to take their cases to court, but most believe their attackers will never be found.

Another rape victim says her rapists were rebel soldiers, who operate entirely outside the law. "I went out to look for my children and on the way back I met three armed men. They raped me and my friend," she stated.

While officials struggle to catch and punish rapists, aid workers and victims say the only real way to stop the rape epidemic in Congo, is to end the conflict that has plagued this land for decades.