KISANGANI, TSHOPO PROVINCE, DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF CONGO — It was just after 7 p.m. when Dorcas’ father sent her down the street to buy a stack of torches.
On her way home, she ran into a friend of her father’s who asked her to walk with him because they lived in the same neighborhood. But when they passed by his home, she says he pulled her inside.
“I screamed and screamed for help, but no one came to my rescue until he finished doing what he had to do,” Dorcas says, with tears filling her eyes as she recounts the rape with her 7-month-old baby tied to her back.
When Dorcas told her mother what had happened, the family made the choice not to press charges, even though they knew who had raped their daughter. Violent rape of a minor is a felony that carries five to 20 years in jail here. But the family didn’t want the situation publicized, especially after they realized that Dorcas became pregnant from the rape.
“When I told my mom what had happened to me, she talked me out of breaking the bad news to anyone else out of fear that it would bring shame on my whole family,” Dorcas says.
It’s common for rapists to pay a sum of money in exchange for keeping the case out of court, child rights advocates say. In Dorcas’ case, her parents say they were paid $5,000 by their daughter’s rapist to keep the case out of court.
Today, Dorcas helps her mother with her small business trading vegetables in downtown Kisangani, the capital of DRC’s Tshopo province, instead of going to school.
“I dropped out of high school as a result of the pregnancy,” she says. “My dream of one day becoming a doctor has scrambled to dust.”
In Kisangani, rape is a common crime. But poverty, corruption and stigma often compel families to keep cases out of court, says Fortina Mwanishay, 65, a legal advisor to the child protection unit within the Kisangani city police.
“Families leave no stone unturned to identify the assailant and then force him to pay money,” Mwanishay says. “Both parties ensure the arrangement is made under a cloak of secrecy.”
The Kisangani police station added a child protection unit in 2006, and has since registered more than 1,000 cases, Mwanishay says.
But pressing charges against a rapist is a long, public and expensive battle. Sixty-four percent of Conoglese people live below the national poverty line, making cash payoffs from perpetrators a tempting option, especially in the face of court costs and long public trials that often involve family members or friends.
When Sarha, now 17, was raped by her uncle three years ago, she says her family opted for cash instead of courtroom justice.
“After being raped, my family convened and invited my uncle to justify himself,” says Sarha, whose last name was withheld to protect her privacy. “I have no idea how much he paid, but one thing is for sure: No charge has been made against him,” she says.
The child protection division of the local police department is concerned about the increasingly common practice of swapping justice for money, Mwanishay says. She fears that child rape is becoming more common here because rapists know they are not likely to be prosecuted.
Evidence that child rape is on the rise here might not be obvious in court, but it is obvious in local hospitals.
Matabisi Muteba, 42, medical director of the l’Hopital de référence de Kisangani, a local general referral hospital, says they see “scores of underage girls” who seek treatment after being rape.
“They often say ‘no’ when I ask them if their rapists are facing jail time. They say they’re coerced into saving their families’ honor, as a result of which families decide to bury cases of rape,” he says.
Doctors are not permitted to report cases to the police without their patients’ consent, he says.
Rene Kande, a doctor at the Centre de Sante de Reference Saint Joseph-Kisangani, another local hospital, says he also sees numerous patients per month who are underage and suffering a variety of physical and mental consequences after rape. They commonly treat everything from emotional trauma to complications from teen pregnancy.
“If families were aware of the scale of the damage caused by rape, they wouldn’t remain silent, ensuring that justice is done,” he says.
Since 2010 there have been efforts to bring awareness to child rape here, says Marguerite Mbombo, a child rights activist who works with unwed teen mothers.
“There’s a tendency for people here to think of rape of underage girls as normal, because they know full well they can pay money to lure victims’ families into absolving them,” Mbombo says, adding that local seminars on the topic have been ongoing since 2010 with little impact.
Ndayaho Sylvestre, GPJ, translated the article from French.