Congo-Kinshasa: 'New Dawn' in Land of Rape and Child Soldiers

Madam Jeanine Mabunda,Advisor on Sexual Violence and Child Recruitment to DRC President Joseph Kabila, addressing reporters outside of Bunia City Hall
13 July 2015

Since Jeanine Mabunda Lioko Mudiayi became the Advisor on Sexual Violence and Child Recruitment to DRC President Joseph Kabila last year, she has become a high-profile advocate for women and children, particularly in the troubled eastern Congo region.At home she cultivated top military leaders to become part of the solution and to take responsibility for eradicating a culture of impunity. She presided over the development of regional mobile courts to try offenders and established an emergency hotline for victims. Internationally, she has both thanked the global community and appealed for support. The December issue of Jeune Afrique magazine named her one of the 50 most influential African women. Two special representatives of the United Nations Secretary-General, Zainab Hawa Bangura and Leila Zerrougui, called her appointment “a new dawn in the fight against conflict-related sexual violence and child recruitment”.

In April Mabunda addressed the United Nations Security Council. This week she is in Washington DC to bring her multi-faceted campaign to the attention of U.S. policy makers and non-governmental organizations. When Mabunda was in New York, AllAfrica about spoke to her about her work.

You’ve got a big job ahead of you, don’t you?

Yes, I do. It is OK; this is worth our time. We have really changed the perception and given hope to the people, the entire country, and even to those outside the country.

The DRC has never before sent a representative to the Security Council discussion on women and security. Why this year?

It’s true this is the first time that DRC has sent a representative. And yes, it’s key and strategic for us, because we have a heavy legacy of security and peace issues, and with this legacy came the collateral damages of rape. So, it’s a good to update about what we are doing and how we are doing it - progress and challenges. Others have been telling this story, but now we want to take leadership on the question. We want to show ownership of the issue and to endorse that this is not a taboo issue - that we are addressing it.

Late last year you welcomed the conviction of a high ranking officer and members of the army and the police - General Jerome Kakwavu and others - for rape and crimes against women and girls. They were convicted in a military court. How significant was that? What difference does that make?

This makes a real difference because the DRC has been presented as ‘the capital of rape’ - a bad label, and if you want to change the narrative you have to address where it hurts. Where it hurts is the perception of impunity that the population has regarding the rapes committed by security forces. All security forces, in the past, due to conflict and peace challenges, have been pinpointed as being the perpetrators in rape. We know we have to start somewhere and somewhere where it was really significant – the military justice system.
So what did we do? There is no miracle, and I could not do this alone. You cannot go to the army and say, “You are perpetrators, and we are accusing you.” It will not work. But we started engaging with all the levels, from the bottom to the top of the army and explaining how it was important for all of us, as a nation, to be proud that we can change the narrative because we can change the behavior - that we can make a real difference.

Zero Tolerance for Sexual Violence

We started looking systematically at all the backlog of pending files. We needed to develop a zero tolerance attitude and the Minister of Defense helped me, the Chief Commander helped us. The military tribunals receive a lot of support on day-to-day operations from the military prosecutors who render justice on a daily basis. We were surprised to see that they understood the law well. The law on sexual violence is very strong, very severe, and it just needs implementation.
So we started with implementing the law and ended up with 135 convictions of rape committed by soldiers. We thought that soldiers have to be exemplary, and it would be good to see that people are not above the law, even if you are a high-ranking general.

They upheld the conviction of General Jerome Kakwavu after seven years of prosecution and many difficulties achieving access to the site -but we ended up with his conviction. We did the same thing on the police level. We have convicted a number of police in the Kasai area which is not in the eastern Congo. General Kakwavu used to operate in the eastern Congo, but we went to Kasai to show that it’s not a question of east or west, north or south; it’s just not acceptable. We have zero tolerance for this and we mean it by sanctioning it. We did it with the support of the military justice system. It was not possible to do it without their support.

You’re saying that the zero tolerance policy will be understood over time and will begin to affect actions if perpetrators know they will be held accountable?

With emergency response, when someone is suffering you have to intervene very quickly. From the government level, the government of Congo has to support the population and here you will see the recent link with what I do and what the government does. For example, you will see in the UN report one year ago that the army reported 71 people as perpetrators of rape crimes. In 2014, the UN report showed that number was reduced by half.

How did it come about? It comes through prevention by education. How do you link that to little girls? It’s by long term policy. The Minister of Education and the government in general started a very bold analysis and education policy focused on little girls in 2010. They launched a campaign called Send Your Little Girl to School because we had observed that girls were a little bit neglected. In a family of seven children in remote rural places, when you have no money to send all your children to school, you have to select and prioritize. Usually, they prioritize boys at the cost of little girls. So the Education Minister started campaigning, also bringing schools to the doors of the villagers, so that they don’t have any excuse not to send their children to school.

We have a program that we call Build 1,000 Schools per Year, which is not just propaganda; we are doing it, and it shows in our budget. From 2010 to today the rate of education in the budget was 6%, and it is now 16% in 2014, having almost tripled. And it’s staying up because in the past, we had only 7 million children at school in the first grade, and now we have 17 million Congolese boys and girls going to school because of this program which is building new schools. I think this is how you make the change, because you give opportunities to little girls to be better equipped by going to school.
We have also observed that when the school is newly built and you separate the toilets – you have a dedicated toilet for little girls and a dedicated toilet for boys - then the parents are more confident in sending their teen girls to school. So, my work has to be linked to long-term policy on education designed to empower little girls. It shows in the figures.

One year ago we had 15,000 recorded children who were victims of rape in the DRC. In 2013 it was 15,000. In 2014 it was 10,812 kids, which is a 33% decrease. This really shows how you can improve and change the narrative if there is a dedicated willingness in policy at the top level and at the national level.

You’re collaborating with education officials on this holistic policy?

Yes, exactly. All these figures and examples I’m giving you on education are really the performance and the records of the Ministry of Education and we are working closely with them because, like I said, it’s by prevention through education that you can change the long-term behavior about how boys and girls position themselves in this gender-issue parity. And with the UN funding that is available to boost this education policy, we are really seeing the change.

As you know, Dr. Dennis Mukwege at Panzi Hospital has seen some of the worst of the results of the rape that continues to happen. What are you doing to support his work and the work of others like him?

We praise all the activities of the NGOs because they are out in the field. Sometimes they are sources of best practices and good knowledge on the dynamics of the field, so it’s a learning opportunity for us at the public level to liaise and engage with them; that’s really important.

However, I do not want to give the impression that I speak for Dr. Mukwege or NGOs on the violence issue in DRC. I think that we are all working in the same direction, through different angles. We praise the NGOs for the capacities they have; we praise them also for the new dialogue that we are setting up together.
It’s also true that there have been convictions. The justice system requires evidence and inquiries before coming to the trial and convicting people, but it’s getting done. This is very important.

Battling on Multiple Fronts

What kind of reception are you getting internationally?

We are updating people about the progress, while trying to share experiences about the hurdles and challenges that remain. We’ve had meeting with the Japanese, the Americans, and the British, because they were the holder of the international summit in London last year on sexual violence. We are working closely with the sexual violence unit of the United Nations, the child soldiers unit of the United Nations.

The people of the Democratic Republic of Congo will ultimately judge the progress the government is making. What do you say to international NGOs, like Human Rights Watch, who welcomed your appointment but also expressed some skepticism that you would be able to do anything.

I understand their skeptical reading at first. Work has to speak, not for me personally, or the Prime Minister, or the Chief of the State, but the DRC as a nation. We set up a call center where people can get help and be assisted; we submitted a proposal for reparations for victims of sexual violence perpetrated by public servants to the Senate; we established an action plan for the fight against sexual violence by the army in a post-conflict country in Africa; we were able to promote three female generals, of which one is at the head of the Civic Education Institute of the army and is intensifying training on woman and children protection issues, international law and humanitarian law.

We’ve also seen more than 20 army commanders participate in a ceremony at the UN, saying they will commit themselves to be very sensitive and reactive to sexual violence. Each of their units consists of 3,700 soldiers. These things were not there one year ago.

I’m not speaking about me, I’m speaking about various civilian and military prosecutors, and various NGOs doing great work in the field with me and with others, dedicated to providing education and to changing the narrative. I think that, yes, maybe Human Rights Watch or Amnesty International or any international NGO that aren’t seeing offences will start thinking that something is changing in DRC and that we can share our experience after all the turmoil and security issues. That’s it – that’s the achievement.

It sounds as though your dream in the job you have now is to help facilitate the work of many people who are trying to make DRC move from a country that was labeled the ‘rape capital of the world’ to a country that can actually be a model as to how to reduce the risk and the threat to young girls in Africa and in other places as well.

You speak about ‘dreams’ – I will speak about ‘national ambition’, because we are trying to transform it and we are trying to tackle this label of being the ‘rape capital’. I think now, the figures speak for themselves. It’s not about propaganda; it’s about figures - 15,000 cases one year ago, to 10,000 cases recorded by the UN report we will be presenting on Wednesday.

These are facts, and it speaks about Congo. It speaks about peace in Congo. It speaks about women’s positioning in Congo when there is a strong and shared willingness, leadership and ownership by the decision makers. We need the 70 million of the Congolese people to do that – and they are there.

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