Victims of sexual assault deserve better

The consequences of sexual assault are severe. This was why the Belgian Development Agency (Enabel) in the Congo introduced a holistic approach to taking care of victims. This involves medical and psychological monitoring as well as legal aid and re-integration into society.

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Woman in consultation

Victims of sexual violence need an intensive follow-up. © Enabel

It is well-known that sexual assault is a common occurrence in Eastern Congo, a region ravaged by a hotchpotch of armed gangs. But in actuality, this is a national problem. A study from 2013 in 7 Congolese provinces – including Kinshasa, Katanga and both Kivus – gives an indication of this. More specifically, 10,322 cases of sexual assault were recorded in 2011, being rape for the most part. In 2012, the number rose to 15,654 cases. 98% of the victims were women, predominantly aged between 12 and 21. 99% of the perpetrators were men, the vast majority of whom were over 18. It is safe to say the study reflects an underestimate.

Severe consequences

The consequences for the victim are severe. Sexual assault can lead to physical consequences (pregnancy, sexually-transmitted diseases, etc.) as well as evoking intense emotions (fear, rage, etc.) and causing post-traumatic stress and mental disorders.

In the Congo, there are additional social consequences. Rape victims suffer from a huge stigma within their community and are often disowned by their partner or family. Amicable settlements are regularly arranged between the families of the victim and the aggressor, via a marriage and/or a sum of money as compensation. Perpetrators often escape legal punishment. All of these factors encourage the victims to remain silent. Both the community and health professionals generally have too little awareness of how severe the consequences can be for the victim.

For unmarried girls and adolescents of school age, the consequences can sometimes have an even greater impact. If they need to suspend their schooling as a result of the assault, they end up in extreme social isolation. Without the necessary care, the traumas suffered from sexual assault can lead to fatal consequences for them in the short or long term.

Indoor garden of One Stop Center

A ‘One Stop Center’ in the making. © Enabel

National plans

Nonetheless, the national authorities have indeed developed national plans to deal with this issue. A National Gender Plan was adopted as long ago as 2009. Its aim: to eliminate any form of discrimination and violence on the basis of gender and to strengthen the position of women. Additionally, a “National Strategy for the Battle against Violence based on Gender” was developed, including: the battle against impunity; reform of the military, police and judiciary; consideration for victims; and raising awareness. However, the authorised Ministry of Gender, Families and Children does not have the capacity needed to properly carry out its mandate.

At the Congo's request, the Belgian authorities have invested in a solution, namely through the Belgian Development Agency (Enabel). As a small donor, Belgium mainly chooses pilot projects. If the approach works, then the project can be rolled out across the entire country or region.

For the sexual assault issue, Enabel initially chose to collaborate with the “Al Waleed centre” in Kisangani, along with 2 other health centres. Al Waleed was the only health centre that was already well-equipped to care for victims of sexual assault.

One-Stop Center

Thanks to this project, the centre was further developed into a highly accessible “One-Stop Centre” (a unique reception centre). This means that victims can rely on a holistic approach there. They can turn to it for medical and psychological monitoring as well as legal aid and re-integration into society.

All the healthcare at these “One-Stop Centres” is actually provided for free to the victims, thanks to Enabel's support.

Healthcare staff were trained to provide more effective psychological aid. After all, this demands a thorough knowledge of the traumas suffered and should involve more than offering an empathetic ear. Mentors were also provided to monitor victims over several months. These mentors are crucial for guaranteeing a thorough re-integration into the family and the community.

The project did not focus on improving the functioning of the Congo's legal and police services. However, Enabel did organise training courses and campaigns to raise awareness for police officers and legal staff. Indeed, these people were not particularly well aware of how to care for the victims of sexual assault correctly.

Woman gives training using papers on the wall

A training for legal staff on how to correctly care for victims of sexual violence.​ © Enabel

Family and community

The project also involved a research element, with contributions from the University of Ghent and the Université Catholique de Louvain-La-Neuve, among others. After all, it is essential for us to have a better view of the role of the family and the community in order to arrive at a holistic approach to the victims. Why does a community seek shelter in amicable settlements? Why do some families disown a woman who have been raped, while others do not? What role can the uncle play in convincing the parents to let a girl who has been assaulted go to school regardless?

The project also considered the underlying causes of sexual assault. There is certainly a link to traditional practices, whereby men are dominant and women are subservient. Countless campaigns to raise awareness – theatre plays, poetry recitals, football matches between two teams of young girls, mobile cinemas, workshops, etc. – have attempted to influence the population's view of the relationship between men and women.

The local radio stations were also involved and their journalists received training in breaking through sexist stereotypes. Mentors raised awareness around sexual education, family planning and preventing sexual assault at a number of secondary schools.

Decent results

The project was fully in keeping with the Congolese government's national plans and also took place in collaboration with the services involved. For instance, the project ensured that the distribution of “PEP kits” – a short preventative treatment against AIDS after high-risk exposure – is better integrated into the national system. Enabel also remained in close contact with other donors, such as UNICEF and the World Bank.

After 4 years, the project has already delivered decent results. 75% more victims of sexual assault were cared for in the health centres. The approach was also expanded to 2 other health centres, namely in the city of Gemena in the province of Sud-Ubangi (formerly Équateur province) and in Mosango in the province of Kwilu (formerly Bandundu province).

The project will be extended by 2.5 years with a budget of 2 million euros. The aim is to consolidate the results locally and expand them across the entire country. Additionally, the results of the scientific research will be used to revise the national communication campaigns and to further improve the treatment procedure for victims.

An app for documenting sexual assault

Victims of sexual assault are often unable to provide sufficient evidence of what has happened to them. This makes it all too easy for the perpetrators to escape prosecution.

In order to remedy this, Physicians for Human Rights developed the “MediCapt” mobile app. Using this app, clinical staff can easily identify the evidence of sexual assault – including photos of injuries suffered – and share this with the police and justice services. They can do so without harming the privacy of the patient or others involved.

Physicians for Human Rights received 315,000 euros from Wehubit to introduce MediCapt in the Congo (2019-2021). Wehubit is a Belgian Development Co-operation initiative, implemented by Enabel and BIO, the Belgian Investment Company for Developing Countries. Its aim: supporting digital solutions that tackle development challenges in an innovative manner.