Last Updated: Monday, 22 January 2018, 10:00 GMT

Women "Prisoners" in Their Own Homes

Publisher Institute for War and Peace Reporting
Author Héritier Maila
Publication Date 29 May 2009
Citation / Document Symbol AR No. 215
Cite as Institute for War and Peace Reporting, Women "Prisoners" in Their Own Homes, 29 May 2009, AR No. 215, available at: [accessed 22 January 2018]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

They speak of regular abuse and having virtually no control over their own lives.

By Héritier Maila in Lubumbashi (AR No. 215, 29-May-09)

The terrible details of the Congolese rape epidemic are becoming increasingly well known. Countless numbers of women are sexually assaulted as they go about their daily lives - one of the many consequences of the conflict and impunity that have bedevilled the country in recent years.

Less publicised has been the attacks on women in their own homes, from those closest to them. Many suffer regular physical and mental abuse - not from strangers but by husbands or family members. And they accuse the government of making little effort to protect them, promote their rights and prosecute their attackers.

IWPR was invited by the Lubumbashi-based NGO Centre de Développement Pour la Femme to hear some of their stories. These women are among the poorest on the planet. In spite of the considerable efforts they make to maintain the well-being of their families and communities, they have neither the means, skills nor strength to claim their rights.

Asking that their identities be concealed for safety reasons, the women explained that they are treated like private property, with virtually no control over their lives. One woman, the second wife of a politician 18 years her senior, is banned from washing while her husband is away and beaten if she disobeys.

"He spends three days with his first wife and three days with me. When he is with the first one, I have to remain dirty, just wash my face and put some light perfume," she said. "As soon as I make the mistake of washing myself, he severely beats me and retains my allowance. He suspects me of having cheated on him when I have washed myself.

"He constantly asks the maid or the children if anybody came in his absence. I am not even allowed to drive the car myself. It is a nightmare, and I live as a prisoner in my own house. I have to live with this €¦ otherwise I get slapped in the face or undergo other forms of violence."

A woman whose husband had recently died described the humiliation she felt when her in-laws insisted she participate in a superstitious ritual.

"The uncles and aunts of my husband came from the village and decided that I had to have sexual intercourse with my brother-in-law, Trésor, the little brother of my husband, whom I had raised," she said. "This custom aims at purifying the widow so that the spirit of my husband won't come haunting me or the children. I had to give in to these degrading customs.

"After that, my parents-in-law decided that the house had to be under his supervision and that he would also be responsible for the children."

Laws do exist in Congo which could help protect women from violence in the home and some abusers do appear before the courts. Lubumbashi judge Claude Manza cited on example of a husband who poured boiling water on his wife. "She was burnt and died," he said. "The man was sentenced to death."

A new law on sexual violence passed in 2006 is more comprehensive than its predecessor with convicted rapists facing up to 20 years in prison. Marital rape is also a crime under the law, but Manza says he has never dealt with a case involving sexual violence inside marriage. "The women victims are responsible for that because they don't report their problem to the judiciary," he said.

Lubumbashi appeals court judge Constantin Lupama has a more sympathetic assessment. "Shame and fear of retaliation often prevent women from turning to justice to get compensation." he said. "And even if she does, there is no guarantee her case will be heard considering the current state of the legal system."

A woman raped in 1997 by the soldiers of former president Laurent Désiré Kabila as they drove Mobutu Sese Seko from power explained that she was too frightened and ashamed to report her attack.

"We heard someone knocking on the door very hard. Three men in uniform and heavily armed stormed the house," she said. "After having searched the house from top to bottom, they tied my husband to the dining table. One after the other, they raped me in front of my husband who was unable to move since a weapon was pointed at him. Only tears could flow from his eyes - tears of humiliation and anger.

"After having satisfied their needs, they threatened to kill us all if we were to denounce them and then left. Since then, my husband only speaks to me when the children or guests are around. He never mentions this episode of our life nor touches me. I'd like to talk to him about it but our customs prevent me. Within an hour, all my happiness of 10 years had gone up in smoke."

Improving judicial training and passing new laws that more effectively punish those who commit violence against women would help, say analysts.

However, some believe that judicial reform alone will not solve the problem. Woman's rights activist Clotilde Aziza Bangwene blames illiteracy, saying a woman who can't read will never know her rights. She says girls must be properly educated in modern schools if the cycle of violence is to stop.

"Without education and work, women are limited, deprived of the means to support their families," said Aziza, the Congo representative of the Institut Panos Paris. "The education of young girls must be a priority for any responsible government to ensure the future of its people."

Héritier Maila is an IWPR trainee in Lubumbashi.
Copyright notice: © Institute for War & Peace Reporting

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