GOMA — Teachers raping their students is tragically all too common in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. But in the eastern region of South Kivu, it is a reality that is now finally being confronted, with the establishment of local committees in which parents, education officials and students report and track sexual assaults in schools.
The alert system relies on the use of SMS text messages, which are sent to the teachers and parents of a victim of a reported case, as well as to the top school authorities. “Education officials have also decided to introduce sanctions for teachers who assault their students as an amendment to the contract between teachers and the Congolese state,” school inspector Emmanuel Gashamba explained recently in a television program.
Campaigns to raise awareness and encourage students to speak out against rapes have also been started, both by teachers and students. In the neighboring regions of North and South Kivu, 18% of reported rapes are perpetrated in schools by teachers on underage girls, according to a United Nations Population Fund report.
Wars, impunity and insecurity have taken their toll on the country since 1994, which is one reason rapes have increased at such an alarming rate. “We receive 40 complaints of rape every day,” says a Goma criminal investigator who wished not to be named.
In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, North Kivu is the region most affected by this scourge. Secondary schools in North and South Kivu note the rising number of young girls who were made pregnant by teachers and have been missing classes since September.
Ponchelet Bizimana, a trade union activist, said that schools have ceased to be a place of learning and instead have turned into the primary site in society for violence against children. Dida (not her real name), 15, spoke during a counseling session in Goma. “During class, our technology teacher would tell me that I had a good body and that because of that, I could make a good wife,” she recalled, sobbing. “One day he asked me to wait for him after class and he raped me on one of the desks.”
The dowry factor
For Pierrot Bahanuzi, a teacher and trade-unionist, sexual assaults at school are causing children to turn away from studying and in some cases lead to anxiety and depression. Some girls change schools, while others choose to abandon their studies for good. And in some cases, the consequences are even more dramatic, with unwanted pregnancies, abortions and even sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV.
According to women’s rights activist Célestine Nabahavy, sexual assaults in schools are more common when the victims are at the beginning of their studies, and are more widespread in villages than in cities.
When they're assaulted, victims sometimes turn to their families, and some even go to the authorities. But despite all the advice they get on their rights and legal solutions, very few actually decide to press charges for fear of reprisals and lack of confidence in the justice system.
The high costs of dowries is another local factor that some say explains the frequency of rapes. The bride’s parents used to choose the cows they would take as dowry from the groom’s parents’ herd, but such time-honored practices have changed. “Dowries have become expensive and are now paid in dollars," explains one teacher. "This means that getting married is costly, and young women are sometimes sacrificed as a result.”