Three years ago, while Jolie Muhindo* was returning from taking her exams in a city several hours away from her village, she was raped by the commander of an armed group.
Since then she has been living with a host family in Goma, the provincial capital of North Kivu, one of the most unstable parts of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Her parents, who live several hours away by foot, visit her when they can but have warned her not to come home — their village is frequently attacked and women and girls are regularly raped.
Displaced people in camps in eastern Congo are sometimes better off there than in villages which are often attacked and the women and girls raped In 2009 half of all victims of sexual violence in the DRC were children, according to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA).
In eastern DRC where fighting between armed groups continues to cause widespread instability and where more than a million people are displaced, sexual violence has become a standard weapon of war, a tool to destroy communities and to intimidate them. Unicef estimates that currently one quarter of all cases of sexual violence against minors are perpetrated by members of armed groups.
Sexual violence is not limited to conflict zones in the DRC. Young girls and, to some extent, young boys are also vulnerable to sexual abuse in schools and communities, as well as in certain work sectors, especially mining.
But Tasha Gill, a child protection officer with Unicef DRC, said that there were particular challenges in conflict zones which could make children more vulnerable.
“There are many different forms of abuse — children are subject to different forms of abuse, especially in schools, at the hands of school administrators and teachers.
Girls, especially, are coerced to have sexual relations or engage in sexual intimacy. It is common for sex to be traded for grades to pass,” Gill said.
“This is a widespread problem, not specific to the DRC. In the DRC there is a link between sexual violence and violence generally, but sexual abuse is also a problem in areas which are not conflict zones.
“In conflict zones there may be a particular susceptibility, because children there have a keen sense of survival: What do I have to do today to survive? They have a survival coping mechanism — like having sex to give things to my siblings, sex in exchange for foods. How best can I take care of myself?”
There is little doubt that the prevalence and persistence of sexual abuse and sexual violence is closely linked to the decay of the Congolese state and its institutions. The justice system is a key example of an institution that has essentially collapsed as a result of corruption, neglect, irregular pay and political interference. The result is that few Congolese trust the system to bring them justice and rarely even bother to seek judicial redress.
More than 800 children were forcibly recruited by militia last year. Rehabilitating them presents an enormous challenge. They are traumatised and changed and communities are often afraid to take them in. Photos: James Akena and Finbarr O’Reilly/Reuters
A further problem is that there are relatively few functioning courts, which means that victims of sexual violence often have to travel long distances to major towns to seek legal action. This requires money and time away from work or family, both of which are major hurdles for the average person living in eastern DRC.
But seeking justice is an important part of the healing process, said Isidore Kalimira, the president of the International Movement for Children and Women’s Rights in DRC.
“We provide the victim with psychosocial counselling but we also accompany them to the youth court so that they can be heard and justice can be done. When there are reparations [paid], that is when the family — and the child — starts to heal psychologically, because it is then that that child understands that the perpetrator has been punished.”
For victims of sexual violence, there are also issues of shame and stigmatisation. Many victims are too afraid or too ashamed to speak out about what they have lived through and are frequently rejected by their families and communities. This is also the case with children who are either victims of sexual violence, or who are born as a result of a rape.
“Children whose parents have been victims of sexual violence can face a series of challenges. This is the case both for children who are born of sexual violence and those who belong to a survivor of sexual violence. Research — shows that it depends on the community, on the nature of the conflict in that community and the perception of the parties to the conflict.
“Children born of sexual violence are often rejected and stigmatised if they are related to the enemy. In other areas children born of sexual violence committed by a group that is defending the community may be more accepted,” Gill said.
Another key challenge facing children in the DRC is the widespread recruitment of children by armed groups. In 2009 the UN Mission in the Congo (Monuc) documented the recruitment of 848 children into various armed groups, including the Congolese army, according to the UN secretary general’s April 2010 report on children in armed conflict.
The vast majority of these were militia and rebel groups in North Kivu province, one of the most unstable parts of the DRC. But the Ugandan rebel group, the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), which has been based in the DRC for the past several years and which is renowned for its kidnapping and forced use of children in armed conflict, reportedly abducted 130 children last year, “most of them — for the purpose of recruitment”, the report says.
This phenomenon continues despite the promulgation of a January 2009 law on child protection that specifically outlaws the recruitment and use of children under the age of 18 by the armed forces and the police and calls for the creation of special tribunals and police units for the protection of children. There is also a UN-led action plan to end the recruitment of child soldiers and to secure the release of children from armed groups.
While the Congolese government is discussing the plan, there are political concerns due to delicate negotiations with various armed groups, Radhika Coomaraswamy, the UN special representative for children in armed conflict, said.
“The plan is still not finalised, although discussions continue— The delay is to some extent due to the complexity of the process. There is an understanding that it has to be addressed in the long run but with the [military integration] process ongoing, the government is not ready to sign an action plan,” she said.
When it comes to pursuing those who recruit children for armed groups, impunity is again an issue. Very few cases have been brought in Congolese courts against military commanders for recruiting children. In fact, some have been elevated to senior ranks in the army despite facing charges of forcibly recruiting children.
This is the case of Jean-Pierre Biyoyo, a leader of a Mai Mai militia faction, who was made a colonel in the Congolese army although he had been found guilty of abducting 40 children to fight in his militia.
In the DRC it is the International Criminal Court (ICC) that has taken action on the recruitment of children. In March 2006 Thomas Lubanga, a former leader of a Congolese militia was arrested by the ICC and transferred to its headquarters in The Hague.
Lubanga is now on trial on three charges of war crimes related to the conscription of children under 15 years of age, enlisting children into armed groups and using children to participate actively in armed conflict.
Two other Congolese militia leaders have been arrested by the ICC on charges relating in part to the forcible recruitment of children: Mathieu Ngudjolo and Germain Katanga were arrested in 2008 and 2007 and are standing trial on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity.
Coomaraswamy hopes that these high-profile trials will act as a deterrent in the DRC.
“I think there is some deterrent effect of the Lubanga case and it has been shown on screen in DRC and those effects you cannot measure. There are also lots of victims who will be supported as a result of the trial. This will also have a positive effect — [The ICC] has a deterrent effect, but it is hard to measure.”
While these trials are taking place many thousands of kilometres away, on the ground the case of another former militia leader sends an entirely different message: Bosco Ntaganda, Lubanga’s military commander, also stands accused of committing war crimes relating to the forcible recruitment of children and the ICC has issued an international warrant for his arrest.
But, although the Congolese government is a signatory to the ICC and, as such, is required to arrest Ntaganda, political considerations have led to his unofficial elevation to a senior commander in military operations in eastern DRC.
Coomaraswamy acknowledges the importance of justice for children who have been forcibly recruited.
“Health and psychosocial help is important, as is access to justice interventions. If the justice system does not work, alternative frameworks have to be developed so that people can feel that justice is done.”
There is also the crucial question if what happens when children who have been forcibly recruited return to their families and communities. The International Committee of the Red Cross is one of several organisations that assist former child soldiers to reintegrate.
According to Inah Kaloga, the communications coordinator for the Red Cross in the DRC, many children who have been forcibly recruited are traumatised and struggle to relate to their former identities. In some cases communities are also afraid of the children themselves, wondering whether they might represent a danger to the community.
*Not her real name
The Southern Africa Trust and the Mail & Guardian will be holding a Critical Thinking Forum on Tuesday July 20 at the Atlas Studios in Milpark, Johannesburg, to discuss the report’s findings. If you would like to attend, please call Tamarin Marshman on 011 250 7300 or email [email protected]