Five goats and some money used to be the price to forget an act of rape in the southeast of the Democratic Republic of Congo, but UN staff are telling women they can now go to court.
At Mwitwobe, a village of 5,000 people in Katanga province, about 100 men and women listened attentively to Ashraf Sebbabi, who works for the human rights division of the UN mission in DR Congo (MONUC).
Advertisement"Rape is a crime. It is important for you to break your silence and denounce it," Sebbabi told the gathering through a Swahili interpreter, who was a member of a delegation alerting people in Katanga to their rights in cases of sexual violence.
Mwitwobe, 400 kilometres (250 miles) north of the provincial capital Lubumbashi, was the first stop in this operation, financed by the UN Children's Fund, which is due to last from February to July. In Katanga, which is as big as France, 1,200 cases of rape were reported in 2008.
"I'd like to know if you know that sexual violence is punishable by law in the DRC," Sebbabi asked her audience, which quickly responded to tell her they were aware of the law.
Then Joe-Varell Katumwa, a member of a local non-governmental organisation fighting against impunity, sets out the punishments provided for in the law for rapists.
"They can be sentenced to terms of five to 20 years in prison or to life if the victim dies because of the assault," Katumwa says, a copy of the Congolese Penal Code in his hand.
But the inhabitants of Mwitwobe have always favoured the settling of sexual assault cases according to their own customs.
"Here, you pay money, five goats, a rush mat and a loincloth to purify the image of the girl who has been dishonoured," explained a young man.
The parents of the victim can also force the rapist to marry her, after having been given compensation in kind and in cash, two other villagers said.
Sebbabi pointed out that such "amicable arrangements are forbidden by Congolese law."
Sebbabi encouraged rape victims to take three steps after an assault: seek medical care and take an HIV test, to go to a non-governmental organisation dealing in human rights, and above all to file charges against the aggressor.
"You have to see a doctor within three days of an act of sexual violence, because the physical proof won't be visible afterwards," she added.
"If you haven't got the money to lay a complaint and seek medical care, you can obtain a certificate of poverty which will entitle you to be taken into care," the campaign coordinator explained.
She strongly discouraged "amicable agreements (which) encourage rapists" to repeat their crime.
"Once people understand that they can spend at least five years in prison, mentalities will begin to change," believes Sebbabi, who sums up the three steps to be taken by rape victims in a brochure she is distributing, called "What to do after a rape?"
In this stable region of the DR Congo, animistic magical beliefs, the ignorance of the population, and the inaccessibility of the judiciary are often factors in sexual violence, unlike in other eastern provinces where rape is endemic and associated with armed conflict.
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