Despite tougher penalties for sexual abuse, many crimes go unpunished.
By Héritier Maila in Lubumbashi (AR No. 224, 30-July-09)
Bijou, 16, speaks in a soft, low voice as she paints a grim picture of what life is like for a young girl living on the streets of Lubumbashi, the second largest city in the Democratic Republic of Congo, DRC.
On her first day away from home, men older than her but also living on the streets shaved her head and ripped her clothes off. These “big brothers”, as she calls them, also tortured her by putting melted plastic bags on her skin and then raped her.
“This continued until all the men had had me,” she recalled. “This is the baptism ritual. It happens to everyone who is new.”
Bijou was then sent out on to the streets to earn money as a prostitute. When she returned, she says she was beaten up and the money taken from her.
She was only 11 when she began this way of life.
Many hundreds of girls are forced to live this way across the city, where poverty and unemployment are rife. Family life has often broken down and divorce has increased in the wake of two wars in the 1990s, which has led to many children leaving home or being thrown out.
The exact number of street children in the city is not known, but a 2006 study by Lubumbashi University suggested a figure of nearly 17,000. Lubumbashi has an estimated population of around 1.2 million.
Since then, the global financial crisis has exacerbated the widespread poverty and unemployment in the country.
Bijou has been looked after by Bumi, a local non-governmental organisation for the past two years. For her, the terrible ordeal of living on the streets is over. But for many other young girls, it is still a day-to-day reality.
Other girls who have escaped life on the streets tell a similar story.
“Night was strange, not good,” Judith, 19, recalled. “Soldiers would chase us. Men would take us by force several times. It happened often and they didn’t wear condoms.
”Emilie, 14, said that, during such sexual ordeals, she would leave her body and enter a trance-like state, “It was the only way to survive.
”Emilie says that she feels sad, threatened and scared. Each time she slept with a man, she was disgusted and felt dirty. She would like to return to her studies, but she has no money to pay the fees.
Rosalie, 14, said that she and another girl left home to live on the streets when she was just 12, “A big sister welcomed me to her place ... Since I was a virgin, the big sister lent me to an old man who took my virginity. He paid. This became my work. I was her personal property, something that she could sell.”
New legislation to combat sexual violence was introduced in 2006, but critics say that too many crimes are still going unpunished and that there is often an attitude of indifference towards street girls, which makes it hard for them to seek justice.The new law raised the age of consent to 18 from 16. Any sexual act with a girl younger than 18 is now classed as rape.
The penalty for rape, as defined by the 2006 law, is between five and 25 years in jail, at the discretion of the judge. The law also overturned previous legislation that allowed those convicted of rape to pay a fine in return for a lighter sentence.
Mireille Ngandwe, coordinator of the Centre for the Integration of Abandoned Women in Lubumbashi, criticises the law for giving too much power to judges.
She says that judges are often unwilling to impose tough sentences for rape of street girls, who are already stigmatised by society and by the authorities.
“It should not be up to the judge to determine the sentence,” she said. “The law should fix the penalty for sexual violence at 25 years, instead of between five and 25 years.”
Patricia Nseya, a lawyer and women’s rights activist, says that more must be done to fight the silence and taboos surrounding sexual violence.
“The ignorance of what sexual violence is, and the consequences that it has, leads to the trivialisation of these crimes,” she said. “When victims are street girls, this indifference is intensified and these aggressions keep being perpetrated with impunity, reinforcing a feeling of powerlessness [among the victims].”
Thérèse Lukenge, the provincial minister for family and children, said she is running an awareness campaign to encourage women, regardless of age or social status, to denounce those who have subjected them to rape or sexual exploitation.
A new housing centre for street children in Lubumbashi opened on June 30. Lukenge says that the purpose of the centre is to attempt to re-educate children after years spent on the street, and help them to return to their families if they wish.
Héritier Maila is an IWPR-trained reporter in Lubumbashi.