The woman charged with stopping rape in Congo: A Q&A with Jeanine Mabunda
When Congolese President Joseph Kabila tapped 49-year-old Jeanine Mabunda Lioko, a finance executive and a member of the National Assembly of the Democratic Republic of Congo, to be his special representative on sexualized violence in July 2014, UN representatives hailed the appointment as a “new dawn” in the fight to end rape and child recruitment in the country’s 20-year conflict.
But not everyone received Kabila’s champion with praise. The president has been unpopular since riots broke out in 2011 over his disputed defeat of opposition candidate Etienne Tshisekedi. Some critics openly wondered if Mabunda’s appointment was simply an attempt to improve the perception of the country abroad or a smokescreen for other political motives—such as an attempt by the president to remain in office for an unconstitutional sixth term. In January, protests erupted around the country over the possible delaying of the 2016 presidential elections, which critics said could allow Kabila to stay in office beyond the end of his term, according to news reports.
Still, there has been genuine progress during Mabunda’s watch—most notably, the conviction in November 2014 of high-ranking Congolese General Jerome Kakwavu, who was sentenced to 10 years in prison for war crimes including rape, torture, and murder. That victory was soon overshadowed, however, by revelations that young girls were being raped in the eastern Congolese village of Kavumu. Mabunda denounced the rapes—nearly two years after they’d begun—as “abhorrent,” revealing that she is now calling for an investigation of the crimes at the national level, something NGOs had been requesting for at least a year. In the meantime, the perpetrators remain at large and she faces criticism for waiting so long to act.
The level of sexualized violence in DRC has been called by international relief organization Oxfam America “among the worst in the world.” A history of mass rape from years of conflict in the eastern part of the country has resulted in untold horrors. With a legacy of violence that has seeped into everyday civilian life, what can Mabunda do to create lasting change? In April, I had the chance to speak to Mabunda when she was in New York.
Jeanine Mabunda, who has been the presidential adviser on sexualized violence and child recruitment for the DRC since July, talks about taking steps to address sexualized violence in the country. (Radio Okapi)
CA: We know what your position is. What do you think your job is?
JM: I will say that I’m like a connector, and it’s trying to make fluid the strategy we are addressing on that level. Everybody has to do his job—it’s a transversal issue, so I’m not duplicating the Gender Ministry, the Justice Ministry, or the Defense Ministry. I’m not there to confront the NGOs or to substitute my work to the NGOs because the NGOs are on the field—they are very practical, they are in proximity, and sometimes we can get good lessons from what they are doing. So my job is to be this “catalystic” person, to make sure that the issue of sexual violence is not set aside any more.
CA: There’s a perception about the Congo that there’s lots of corruption and that the people in power are not interested in the plight of people who are being oppressed. Whether or not that’s true, the question remains: How do you motivate the people who are in power to deliver justice?
JM: I understand that the DRC has this bad legacy—this perception of “rape capital” and so on. … You are speaking about a country which has spent years in war and in trying to secure its frontiers, so obviously when your country is at risk of being divided in 100 pieces, it’s very difficult to try to raise the flag of the sexual violence issue because it looks like a luxury. Your priority is to secure your frontier and to stay alive as a nation, as a country, and you have observed that now that the peace is starting to get a bit more stable, now that truly there is a feeling of “We have survived,” we can turn our priority to development and to building a nation—a united nation—and healing our wounds.
It’s now that we have this peaceful context that it’s possible to motivate people to think about [sexualized violence]. Before, it was a little bit challenging because when you don’t know whether Goma or Bukavu will stay Congolese, it’s very difficult to have people focus on [prosecuting sexualized violence]. But now that we have the defeat of the rebellion by M23, now that the peace process is getting stronger, yes, you can help people to be motivated.
It’s going to take time. We cannot change that overnight, and we as a nation, as an institution, are very humble about the progress we can make. But we are motivated … by peace.
CA: You come from a finance background. Do any of those skills transfer to this new position?
JM: Most people—when they address the issue of sexual violence—do so on the side of the medical care, the legal and justice system. You know all that is good, but we have to go a little bit beyond, and to go a little bit beyond is to make sure that these people who suffer this bad experience are not left [along] the way because they cannot work. They have not been at school in a classical way, and they suffer the stigma of the sexual violence. We don’t want these women to stay as a child soldier, to stay on the road without any tools to defend themselves—not physically, against the rapist, but in the coming months, years, they have to live with that experience.
I will give you an example. I went to North Kivu … and there was this girl. She was 14 years old and has a two-month-old baby. I was encouraging her, saying, “Oh, that’s fine. Now that you have been separated from this awful armed group, it’s very good for you because you can go back at school now. You’re so young.” She looked at me very seriously and she said, “But mama, I’m 14 years old. I’m too old to go to school. Why do you want me to go and sit at school? People will mock me, and I’m not interested in sitting every day in a school at the age I am. I’m too old. I need to earn my living because I’ve got the baby.”
I was really shocked and moved. I didn’t want to, you know, to come with a moral lesson and say, “No, you have to go at school.” I just said, “So you don’t want to sit at school, but you said you want to do something with your life. You want to be empowered. You want to decide about your own life. What do you want to do, then, if you don’t go to school?” She said, “I want to be my own boss, and I want to set up a hairdresser center or a tailor center.” I said, “Okay. It’s also a way to go to school because we can train you to get these capacities so you can be, like you said, your own boss.” And, really, that’s where we speak about how people become financially autonomous—financially strong.
We hired an institute which is funded by the DRC government but also French and Japanese corporations. … We have asked them to do an assessment of the demands of the community where these little children and raped women are living. Very basic and very practical training, so that at the end of this training they can be self-employed and they can be empowered by the fact that they’ve got the training and they’ve got the capacity to set up something on their own.
CA: What do you say to your critics who say you haven’t accomplished anything?
JM: I’ve been in office less than one year, and I don’t like people to put it on a personal basis because this issue is not [one] of Mrs. Mabunda or the personal representative. This is the issue of the nation … and it’s hard work. It’s going to take time, but there are some steps we have taken. We’ve been able to get 135 cases of conviction of perpetrators of crime [in] just the year that elapsed in 2014.
We’ve been able to set up a hotline for people to call from everywhere in DRC. The mobile phone in Africa is very effective and in Congo more than ever, because we have 21 million subscribers. So if you set up a hotline where people can get access just to scream out and to break the silence … it’s very effective because potentially you can reach 21 million people even if they are in rural areas.
The Senate has a sexual violence commission, which is quite rare in other African countries. We have started discussing a draft proposal for a reparation fund. Like you said, [my] financial background is inspiring this, maybe, but you don’t have justice if you sanction people. The rapist goes in jail but then you’ve got your family mocking you, saying, “We’ve got the stigma because you made it public.” What you have is this reparation which is available but structured in a compensatory text of law, so we are trying to do that.
What have we done other than that? We have launched a campaign of awareness and advocacy because in African and Bantu culture people do not like to speak about their intimacy. So we have launched a campaign, which is called “Break the Silence,” with big billboards because people are not all going to school but at least they can understand the billboard and the phone number saying “Break the silence!” in their own local language. It was so powerful that even the head of the mission of MONUSCO [the UN mission in DRC] sent a [message] to say, “That’s very effective. You should send it up to the deeper places in the villages.”
CA: So you’re concerned about what happens to a survivor after rape and getting justice for the survivors. But some might say, “Why don’t you just scream as loud as you can about rape?”—for instance, the case in Kavumu, where young girls are being taken from their homes. Some people would ask, “Did she know about that? Why isn’t she louder about that? Why doesn’t she just scream about getting justice for survivors and focus on that?”
JM: It’s a pertinent question and we will end with this: I think maybe that’s a question of communication, but for the moment I have been invited to Bukavu by a platform of 14 nongovernmental organizations called SOS Jeunes Filles en Danger [SOS Girls in Danger]. The platform is headed by a very brilliant activist, and she called me and asked me whether I could share with her the experience about what was going on there. When she told me [about the rapes in Kavumu], I said, “No, I cannot sit on my office and listen to you explaining that to me. I’m coming to the field, and we’re going to have an exchange with the platform of NGOs.”
I think it was very important for me to be with them and to feel it in the way they observe it on the field. I brought the justice minister of the province of South Kivu, who is a lady. We also invited the police, and we had a brainstorming session—more than a brainstorming session, a sharing of information about the phenomenon. It was decided at the end of this exchange that my office should facilitate the access of the NGOs to all the decision-makers in the justice chain, what we did since the 20th of March.
The second step, which is very concrete: To get justice, we need people to [come forward and report crimes]. These people can be identified, and eventually, presumably, they know who in the community is doing that. I started doing my inquiry, calling and [having exchanges] with the justice in charge of that and putting some pressure again on security forces. I spoke to the president of the tribunal of Kavumu, which happens to be a lady, and because some cases were well documented with medical reports, with [proof collected well], we were able to get some decisions. [In many cases, however, evidence was scoured from the victims, according to Physicians for Human Rights, so overall very little usable evidence exists.]
CA: What are we doing to see more aggressive convictions of perpetrators at a high level?
JM: It’s hard work. It’s a long way. It will not change overnight because it’s the result of the legacy we had at the eastern Congo frontier, but we should not wait for the ideal world. We are building the road on a daily basis, which is one small step every day, and this kind of example or the fact that our army now has appointed three women generals, of which one is at the head of the training center of the army—this is a step we are mentioning, that the army has set up a plan to fight sexual violence reviewed by the United Nations.
On a long-term basis, the government of DRC has increased the budget of education from 6 percent of the national budget in 2010 to 16 percent of the budget to 2014, investing in 100 million buildings, 1,000 schools per year, so that little girls no longer have to [travel] this long distance and [be] raped eventually just by going to school. This is the step-by-step policy that we can have—change in the real life of these people.
More articles by Category: Gender-based violence, International, Violence against women
More articles by Tag: Rape, War, Sexualized violence, Congo, DRC