In this eastern province of Congo, there are rapes the government can prosecute — and many, many more it can’t.
But the “rapes” that can be prosecuted often are instances of poor grooms who have angered a young bride’s family, could not pay a dowry or have failed to cover hospital expenses for the birth of a child.
Amza Moise, 25, has served five months of a two-year prison sentence. He was convicted of rape after his 17-year-old wife had a baby and he couldn’t pay the hospital bill.
“I don’t know exactly what I am charged with,” he said inside North Kivu’s crowded central prison. “They said it was rape, but how is that possible? She was my wife. Maybe I am in jail for lack of money?”
Congolese law sets 18 as the age of consent, and judicial officials say the law is zealously enforced because the government is under international pressure to increase its rape convictions.
The result: Hundreds of impoverished youths go to prison in urban areas while thousands of violent rapists operate deep in the countryside far from the reach of the law.
“Eighty percent of the people condemned for rape married a girl under 18 years old,” said Jules Simpeze, the region’s Justice Ministry detention specialist. “Or maybe they got engaged and had a sexual relationship.
“In the central prison, out of 400 people condemned for rape, maybe 380 were arrested under such circumstances.”
Mr. Simpeze said most people in Congo — where the median age is 17.4 — do not know that 18 is the age of consent. If a man is involved with or even married to an underage girl, the authorities are obliged to prosecute him under the 2006 rape law.
“Most cases begin when families of girls are trying to claim dowries,” Mr. Simpeze said. “Parents originally agreed to the marriage, but when they take the [dowry] case to the police, and when authorities note that the man is living with an underage girl, it becomes another story.”
In addition, the men’s families fall deeper into poverty during their incarcerations because their wives — the so-called “victims” — depend on them for a living, Mr. Simpeze said.
About 80 percent of Congo’s 72 million people live on less than $2 a day.
Meanwhile, about 2 million girls and women have been raped in the countryside at a rate of nearly one per minute, according to a study published in the May edition of the American Journal of Public Health.
“The real perpetrators of sexual violence are not arrested,” said Mr. Simpeze. “Women get attacked when they go to the fields. If they report the rape and seek treatment and justice, then they go home. Justice cannot catch perpetrators.”
A country roughly the size of Western Europe, Congo has many areas that can be difficult to access because of thick jungles, a lack of roads and skirmishes between factions that use rape as a ruthless means to rule their regions.
Government officials say extreme poverty and the country’s weak judicial system are direct results of the wide-ranging, long-simmering conflict that has plagued this Central African nation for more than a decade.
Christian Bahati Yuma, president of the High Tribunal in the North Kivu capital of Goma, said mobile courts and education campaigns are helping local residents know and understand the law.
In Goma, the local population is largely aware of the age of consent, Mr. Yuma said.
But in a mountainous, heavily forested and lawless area, the justice system is crippled by a lack of access to battle areas. Police are undertrained and underequipped, and many victims of violent attacks deep in the countryside cannot afford to seek justice.
“In my country and all over the world, there is no justice if there is no peace,” Mr. Yuma said. “And if there is no peace, there is no durable development.”
Other officials say the law itself ignores local customs.
Francois Tuyihimbaze Rucogoza, the provincial minister of justice, said enforcement is reducing occurrences of rape in Congo by creating a deterrent, but he added that the law, as written, is flawed.
Mr. Rucogoza said officials enacted the law in reaction to inflated statistics generated by international organizations seeking to increase or maintain their funding.
Those statistics, coupled with international pressure, have left Congo with a strict law that does not always serve the people, he said. As a consequence, law officers are obliged to pack jails with poor, young husbands who didn’t know they were breaking the law.
“One of the biggest problems is the proximity of justice,” Mr. Rucogoza said. “And in many of our local cultures, sleeping with or marrying a girl under 18 is not considered a problem.”
Lawyers who defend rape suspects say some of the men they represent are guilty, but most are caught up on statutory charges or are accused of rape simply because they haven’t paid a dowry.
Lawyer Frank August Muteba-Mukute said poor families use rape accusations as an attempt to collect debts. “We have realized in recent years that some people have made rape into a business. Families accuse enemies of rape,” he said.
Men languishing in North Kivu’s central prison for rape offenses are quick to point out that the prison is operating at more than four times its capacity. Most of the men are not entirely certain why they are being punished.
Edouard Balume, 35, has served 14 months of the 15-year sentence he received after paying his wife’s family only three of the nine goats he owed for a dowry.
His wife is older than 18, but her family still accused him of rape. He said she agreed to the accusation under pressure from her brothers.
“It’s like I raped a girl because I have been living with her without paying the dowry,” he said.