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.”
Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.
"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.
Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.
But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.
The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."
Criticism of any 'royal project'
The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.
Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.
In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.
Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release
Freedom of speech at stake
"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."
The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.
The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.
Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.
Shift to social media
While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.
The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.
Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".
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