Rwanda: How Can the Battle Against Defilement, Rape Be Won?

Karen Akumuntu was only 13 years old when her paternal aunt ordered her to take food to a man who lived in the house next door.

The aunt then forced her to wear skimpy clothing to the man's house and do all sorts of inappropriate things.

She was hesitant to enter the neighbour's house until the aunt decided to escort her. She did not know she was walking into a trap.

The man, whom she knew by the name Solomon, served them drinks, but she never knew hers had been spiked, and she passed out a few moments later.

She woke up the next day in the man's room, with her genitals hurting, and her aunt was nowhere to be seen.

On explaining her ordeal to the aunt, she seemed she wasn't concerned.

"All she told me was that every girl faces that," said Akumuntu.

After a few days, the man gave Akumuntu and her aunt the key to his house so that they could pick food to cook anytime they wanted.

One day, her aunt said she should go and clean the house. She thought the man had gone, but he suddenly entered the room from the bathroom and raped her.

Her aunt did not do anything about it, so Akumuntu, who was brought to live with her aunt by her father after he separated with his mother, stayed with her agony.

After few days, she discovered she was pregnant, and her aunt organized for her to get married to the man who had raped her and when she called her father, he said she was pregnant anyway, so he assented to the marriage.

Akumuntu was only saved by her mother, who alerted authorities and the aunt and her father were arrested but the abuser got to know before he was apprehended and disappeared.

She gave her testimony in an interview posted recently on YouTube, as she carried her 11-month baby on her back.

Akumuntu's predicament is one shared by many children who have been sexually assaulted but don't know where their abusers are.

Local media keeps reporting rape and defilement cases of as young as three years old children.

One of the most recent cases is a father who defiled his 10-year-old daughter in Kirehe District.

Isange One Stop Center received 841 cases of defilement from March to May 2020, and there are many others which go unreported.

Teenage pregnancies

78,000 babies were born to teen mothers from 2015 to 2019. This is a threat to their lives in all ways of living because some drop out of school, or become labourers, among other effects.

Legal Aid Forum, a non-governmental organisation providing legal services for the needy is following 100 cases of legal search for paternity on behalf of teenage mothers, whose abusers either disowned their children, or fled, from January 2019 to June 2020

They have also funded 26 DNA tests, which cost Rwf267,000 each.

The DNA test can only be made when a baby is born. This means that in case a person disowns the unborn child, these young mothers will not be provided for until then.

Recent data indicate that by the age of 19, one in five or 20.8 percent Rwandan girls are first-time mothers.

Some teenage mothers tend to cover for their abusers either because they are threatened or promised child support.

Could culture be fueling the vice?

"What men do is less thought about in our culture. Even when they defile a child, it is regarded as a bad thing but not an abomination. There is still an issue of normalizing crimes that men commit," Sylvie Nsanga, a feminist and children rights activist told The New Times in an interview.

She adds that children don't have the courage to talk to their parents about sex, or when they have been abused because such topics are taboo.

"Most don't say what is happening even when an abuser starts to show them interest."

She says this is not only a family issue, but a societal one. She gives an example of how teenagers need to go with their parents to hospital or other health providers in order to access reproductive health services.

Nsanga explains that adolescents will hardly access the services given the condition, because they never talk about reproductive health with their parents.

"The culture and religion expect people to not have premarital sex. A child who is sexually active is regarded as ill-mannered. Our children shouldn't be our copies, but instead empowered to make informed decisions."

However, Bishop Nathan Gasatura, the Bishop of the Butare Anglican diocese thinks otherwise regarding culture.

He argues that Rwandan culture doesn't condone sexual abuse in any way.

"Because of the chaotic past Rwandans went through, some things were destroyed. Some cultures were from elsewhere and labeled Rwandan. Some of the things in the culture were faked."

He said people should go the extra mile and learn the real Rwandan culture before people started migrating.

What ought to be done

Gasatura believes the church and other stakeholders in building the nation should work together to fight against the crimes.

"Some of the things we keep telling people are that they are created in the image of God. Not by their physical appearance but by the inside value they have, so they must behave decently for themselves, their families and their country."

Nsanga appreciates yet to be established sex offenders registry, because convicted offenders will not be hired in any position that could threaten vulnerable people like children.

However, she believes sexual related crimes should have a separate court precisely meant for trying such crimes.

"The current system is not favorable for the victim. If you are pregnant, you will have to wait until nine months for a DNA test.

"For you to get evidence when you are raped, you have to immediately go to the doctor after the crime. But what if I don't go there immediately? Does it mean justice is over for me?"

Nsanga adds that some victims may decide to report after some time when they are settled, and that there is so much evidence that could be reliable even when one doesn't report right away.

One of the challenges in pursuing justice for defiled and raped victims is poor maintenance of evidence. Some parents bathe their children and change their clothes before they go to report.

This could destroy evidence needed to charge someone, like if the abuser's DNA was on the clothes or semen on the victim's genitalia.

"The rule of law is a great step, but it will not solely curb teen pregnancy and sexual assault against young girls."

Clarisse Munezero, the senior capacity development officer at The Legal Aid Forum also suggests that the government should have a specific sex assault investigators unit.

She adds that those investigators must be intensively trained on finding evidence and maintaining it, so that even when it is little, at least it works in favor of the victim.

In 2009, the First Lady Jeannette Kagame, through her Imbuto Foundation, implemented the Isango One Stop Centre (IOSC) to ease access to services needed by GBV victims such as medico-legal examinations, psychotherapy and treatment and prevention of HIV/AIDS, STI/D's, among others.

IOSC works 24 hours a day in 44 hospitals across the country, and at least medical services for GBV victims in every health centre and their services are accessed for free.

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