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When a woman is no longer silent

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Chantal Bilulu, Coordinator of the Women and Children’s Program for Héritiers de

This article is by Chantal Bilulu, the Coordinator of the Women and Children’s Program for Héritiers de la Justice in honour of the International Day to End Violence Against Women (November 25) and 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence. Héritiers de la Justice is based in Bukavu, Democratic Republic of Congo and a partner of KAIROS Canada.

For us at Héritiers de la Justice, the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence is a great opportunity to empower Congolese women to speak out about sexual violence and to awaken their fellow sisters. I would say its success can be measured by the numbers of women who are able to break their silence around the sexual violence they have experienced. When a woman is no longer silent, she is no longer alone in her struggle.

This begins at the grassroots. We have created local women’s committees, known as the SALVIS/PDF network, in many villages in rural South Kivu. These groups are crucial in supporting women to defend their rights and raise awareness more generally about peace and human rights. SALVIS/PDF groups organize awareness-raising workshops about women’s rights, the Congolese law against sexual violence, and other challenges facing their communities. Following such workshops, many women have come forward and spoken openly for the first time about sexual violence they have suffered. In some cases, Héritiers de la Justice staff has been able to bring these women to receive medical treatment at one of the hospitals in Bukavu and to deal with serious problems that may have results from these attacks.

At the moment, Héritiers de la Justice is constrained by a lack of financial resources. We would like to organize more women, accompany more women and train more women advocates. We need more human resources to respond to the desperate needs. We have access to only one vehicle, and travelling in the rural areas can be very challenging at times. This year we extended our reach farther south to the town of Uvira where violence has been very bad lately. The newly formed committee in Uvira needs accompaniment as they start their human rights promotion and education work.

Our legal clinic, which operates thanks to the financial support of KAIROS Canada, has served dozens of victims of gender-based violence. Through our efforts, we’ve seen an increasing number of convictions for sexual violence offences. This represents real progress and sends a strong signal that men cannot rape with impunity. More recently, we’ve seen a shift towards more civilians being convicted of rape and sexual assault charges and fewer military personnel or police. This suggests sexual violence is no longer the primary domain of military forces but has spread into the wider population.

A big problem at the moment is that prisons are not sufficiently secure. Prison escapes are a common occurrence. Until the prison system is fixed, we will continue to see empty convictions where the justice system does its work but the offender gets to walk freely in the community.

The 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence is also a time to advocate with our governments. We have been urging the DRC government to raise public awareness about the Congolese law against sexual violence, which has been in effect since 2006. Most of the population is unaware of its provisions or even that these acts are illegal and carry severe penalties under the law. We at Héritiers de la Justice have done a great deal to raise awareness among both women and men – through spots on community radio stations, T-shirt campaigns, and our workshops in rural villages. We refer to the law all the time in our popular materials. However, governments also have a role to play. A law against sexual violence is not only designed to prosecute criminals but also to prevent these crimes by changing social attitudes and behaviours.

Chantal Bilulu, Coordinator of the Women and Children’s Program for Héritiers de la Justice. With assistance from Ian Thomson, KAIROS Canada’s Resources & Rights Partnerships Coordinator, who visited Héritiers de la Justice on November 20-22, 2014.

Photo of Chantal Bilulu. Photo credit: Héritiers de la Justice.

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