September 10, 2012
Reporting Rape: Part Four in a Global Series
DOUALA, CAMEROON – Sophie Mixte, who is in her 30s, says she was raped three times while growing up in Douala, Cameroon’s largest city.
She was first raped at age 8 by a neighbor. Her uncle then raped her when she was 11 while she was living in his home. When she was 13, the brother of one of her classmates raped her.
She says she doesn’t remember much about the neighbor who raped her.
As for her uncle, she says she ran to her parents’ house after the incident. Her uncle told them she had run away because she didn’t want to do her household chores. Her parents believed him and sent her back to his house. Her parents didn’t seek their daughter’s side of the story, and Mixte says she was scared to tell the truth because her uncle threatened to kill her if she did.
In the third incident, she says she had gone to her classmate’s house to retrieve a book. The classmate’s brother answered the door and lied that her friend was inside the home. When Mixte walked into her friend’s room, the brother followed her and quickly shut the door behind them. Then, he raped her and ran off.
She says she screamed to the point that it caught the neighbors’ attention. Her entire neighborhood now knows about the incident, and she says people point at and whisper when she walks by.
“‘That is the girl who was raped,’” she says they whisper.
Mixte says she regrets that it wasn’t until this third rape that her parents found out and reported it to the authorities. But she says that justice was never served.
“The police started to play around the case with my mother, persuading her to drop the case,” she says.
She says that the police told her mother that the boy’s family offered to pay for damages, including Mixte’s hospital bill. They also told her mother that if the case went to court, her daughter would have to testify in front of everybody about how she was raped, which would be shameful. She says her mom was afraid of such a scenario for her daughter, so she agreed to negotiate with the boy’s family.
The case was settled when the family paid her mother 105,000 francs ($200), the equivalent of Mixte’s hospital bill after the rape.
In Cameroon, people who are raped receive medical treatment in hospitals as well as a physical examination that can provide evidence in court. They then must file a report with police to commence the justice process, which is plagued by underreporting and a heavy burden on those people to prove that the rape occurred. The length and outcome of the justice and healing processes vary by case, with judges taking into account whether there were any contributing factors. Nongovernmental organizations aim to help people in both processes, although resources are limited, underreporting is rife and court cases are lengthy.
The Cameroon Penal Code defines rape as any female compelled to have sexual intercourse with a man “by force or moral ascendancy.”
The National Network of Associations of Aunties, which comprises several groups working to combat rape in Cameroon, estimates that approximately 500,000 rapes occur every year in Cameroon. But many of these cases go undocumented because of underreporting.
Dr. Jean Pierre Koubitim of the St. Padre Pio Hospital in Douala says that rape incidents happen every day. He says that people who have been raped range from children to adults and married to unmarried women, incidents occur inside and outside the home, and perpetrators can be strangers or relatives. Yet because of underreporting, the hospital receives just 15 to 20 reports of sexual violence per year, mostly of attempted rape, he says.
“The youngest victim is about 4 years old and was raped by a cousin in their home,” he says.
Koubitim says that when people who claim to have been raped come to the hospital, medical personnel first try to establish what happened.
“Sometimes, they are so traumatized that they cannot talk,” he says. “It’s a relative of theirs who does the talking.”
Next, he does a vaginal examination to check for any signs of self-defense or resistance by the woman, such as bruises or wounds, to show that she did not give her consent. The doctor also does a vaginal smear, which can detect the presence of semen. This examination can serve as evidence if the person decides to press charges.
The doctor also performs lab tests for sexually transmitted diseases, such as hepatitis, HIV, chlamydia and syphilis. Then, he puts the woman on prophylactic treatment of HIV. This treatment must be done within a maximum of three days after the rape for it to be functional, Koubitim says.
“If the treatment is not done and the person who raped the woman is HIV-positive, there is a risk that she would be infected,” he says.
If the HIV test is negative, the doctor places the patient on treatment for a month in order to prevent the virus. If the HIV test comes back positive, the doctor sends the patient to an HIV and AIDS center for follow-up and treatment.
He says that doctors also make emergency contraceptives available in order to prevent unwanted pregnancies. He clarifies that this is different from abortion because it prevents – but does not terminate – pregnancies.
“The preventive treatment, therefore, does not terminate a pregnancy process but rather prevents implantation from taking place,” he says. “Abortion means that she’s already pregnant, but in this case, there’s no pregnancy at all.”
If someone becomes pregnant as a result of the rape, Koubitim says the situation is complicated.
“I am confused because she doesn’t want the pregnancy,” he says. “As a Catholic, it would be difficult to tell her to go for an abortion, and one also understands that it is difficult for her to keep the baby from someone she may not even know.”
In such cases, he says it would depend whether a person who has been raped decides to terminate the pregnancy. Jacob Angoh Angoh, a lawyer of Legal Power Law Firm, made up of barristers and solicitors of the Supreme Court of Cameroon and Nigeria, says that although abortion is illegal in Cameroon, women who become pregnant as a result of rape may obtain a government waiver to receive an abortion.
Esther Ngale, president of the Cameroon Association of Female Jurists, which aims to improve laws to ensure women’s and children’s rights, says the doctor can also provide a medical certificate if he or she finds evidence that person who was raped truly did not consent to the act. Angoh Angoh says this evidence can be used in court.
“The medical certificate is just like further proof, which buttresses the case to go to court,” Angoh Angoh says.
But Angoh Angoh says someone who has been raped must file a formal complaint at a police unit in order to start a case.
“It is the act of making a statement at the police that would set into motion the course of action, which is to go to court,” he says.
He says that the person who was raped should be able to prove that the sexual relationship was not consensual.
“Hence, she must prove that she shouted or she complained to the first person she met at the given opportunity,” he says.
After the complaint is made, the police usually arrest the suspect immediately, he says. After the police establish a case from the evidence provided and their own investigations, they decide whether to dismiss or to pursue the case based on whether the evidence is sufficient.
If there’s sufficient evidence, they forward it to the state counsel for prosecution. The state counsel formally summons the person charged with rape to court.
During the trial, Angoh Angoh says the person who was raped must establish evidence that she resisted or was subdued by the person who allegedly raped her.
“This can be proven by circumstantial evidence, such as wounds on her body,” he says. “If she shouted and people heard her, those people would support her evidence.”
But in the absence of evidence and witnesses, Angoh Angoh says it can be hard to prove the rape occurred.
“It may be assumed that some girls just make up such stories to make money,” he says.
He says that another challenge is getting people to report cases of rape in the first place.
“Not even to file a complaint, as they fear their own integrity,” he says.
One woman, who declined to be named, is a medical doctor at a local medical institution. She says she was working the night shift one evening when a stranger raped her inside the institution, in spite of the high-level security there. But she declines to report the incident or speak much about it.
Angoh Angoh encourages people not to be afraid to report incidents because rape cases are not tried in an open court in Cameroon. He says the state maintains each person’s dignity by hearing cases in the chamber of the magistrate in the presence of the two parties, the lawyers, the magistrate and any witnesses. He says that this aims to preserve each person’s reputation.
“Because if the public knows that a girl is a victim of rape, how many men would dare approach her?” he asks.
He says this approach to hearings of rape cases also accelerates the judicial process. In addition, most defendants charged with rape leave from prison to court for trial, unlike in other cases where the defendant is not in prison and may fail to appear in court.
Authorities say the outcomes of the cases and length of the judicial and healing processes vary by case.
Ngale says that the speed with which the case is handled depends on the court. Angoh Angoh says cases can take approximately six months to a year, depending largely on the volume of work the court has and the availability of the witnesses, the lawyers and the other parties involved.
Ngale says that first the prosecutor needs to schedule the hearing, and then the person who is claiming that a rape occurred can choose to use the state prosecutor or hire a private lawyer. As for who defends the case in court, the state counsel is cheaper than hiring a private lawyer, Angoh Angoh says.
According to the Cameroon Penal Code, the penalty for rape is five to 10 years in prison when the person who was raped is 16 and older and 15 to 25 years in prison if the person raped was under 16. Prison time may be doubled or for life when offenders have authority over or custody of the person raped, are public servants or religious ministers, or are assisted by one or more people. But Ngale says that in general, imprisonment for those proven guilty of rape may range from six months to five years, depending on the circumstances.
On the other hand, Angoh Angoh says that the law has a defense for provocation. For example, it takes into consideration whether a woman provoked the man by dressing a certain way, by inviting him into her room or by working as a prostitute, in which case it presumes that she contributed to the act.
He says the law also takes into account whether they’d been in a relationship before or if the woman had been giving the impression that they were in a relationship by accepting gifts from him. The man in this case would receive a lesser punishment than a man who meets a woman by the roadside for the first time, kidnaps and rapes her.
Since the law only punishes the aggressor but doesn’t take away any pain from the incident, Ngale says seeing a psychologist is crucial.
“This would permit the victim live with the experience, while awaiting justice from the court,” she says.
Koubitim says that the physical healing process may take several weeks. He says he refers people to see a psychiatrist or a psychologist for mental and emotional healing.
Depending on the nature of the problem, workers assist in fostering conflict resolution in the home, pressing charges in the justice system or helping women start small businesses to sustain themselves and their children. They also provide counseling, sensitize the public to gender violence and advocate for laws to protect women’s rights.
Epossi Adéline, the director of the center, says it has received 70 cases of violence against women since it began operations in 2010. Fifty of these were reports of domestic violence, but just one was a rape report. She attributes this to underreporting, not to low prevalence.
She says the woman in this lone rape case was a young student who was raped by her neighbor three months ago. The neighbor, a married man, had been making advances at her, which she repeatedly turned down.
One night, he knocked on her door at 2 a.m. She opened the door because she thought something was wrong. He then raped her in her bedroom, threatening her with a knife not to scream as he covered her mouth.
Her appearance at the police station with torn clothes and wounds served as proof of the rape. Police arrested her neighbor but released him while awaiting the trial. He has filed a case against the person who raped for defamation of character. Adéline says the case is still in court.
Adéline says the center has provided the person who was raped with counseling and has helped her obtain a private lawyer. But its resources are limited.
Mixte says that she wishes she had pursued her case in court and that her mother hadn’t agreed to the settlement with the rapist’s family.
“At the time, I didn’t realize whether this move was bad or not,” she says. “I just felt worthless, as whenever I saw the young man, I felt so much shame.”
She says the settlement didn’t take away this shame.
“I was frustrated, and my mom understood that I could even commit suicide, so she sent me to continue school in another town,” she says.
But even while in another town, she says she was still in low spirits for a long time. Her grades in school dropped, and everything about her life seemed unstable.
She says her trauma only ceased after attending a campaign organized by the National Network of Associations of Aunties and the German Technical Cooperation, now part of the German Society for International Cooperation, which supports the German government in international cooperation for sustainable development. Mixte says that the seminar enabled her to hear other people tell their stories, which encouraged her to do same.
“I realized that I was not the only one to have gone through such ordeal,” she says.
She now helps others who were raped. She first advises them that talking about what happened is a major step toward healing.
“When girls don’t report rape incidents, they encourage rapists to carry on with their acts,” she says. “Hence, you’d find a man raping several women in a family and going free.”
Secondly, she advises women to avoid secluded areas or walking alone, especially at night.
Lastly, she emphasizes the importance of parents listening to their children when they want to speak to them. She says that most often, children choose to stay silent for fear their parents won’t listen to them.
“In my case, for example, if my mother had paid more attention to my complaint about being beaten up by my uncle and inquiring deeper into the issue, maybe it would have encouraged me to talk about the rape,” she says.