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Bringing Congo’s Perpetrators to Book: The Mission of Human Rights Lawyer Denise Siwatula
Editor’s Note: Since the early 1900s countries around the world have celebrated International Women’s Day as a time to recognize the role of women in society and mobilize against injustices specifically impacting half of the world’s population. At Enough, rather than confining our commemoration to just one day—March 8—we’re giving a special focus to women all this week, to highlight how the conflicts we’re working to end affect women and girls, and to recognize the work of heroes advocating on their behalf.
For Day 3 of our International Women’s Week coverage, Chloe Christman on Enough’s Raise Hope for Congo campaign profiles a Congolese lawyer committed to the fight of bringing justice to victims of sexual violence.
There are very few women who have graduated from law school in eastern Congo and gone on to dedicate their lives to helping rape survivors seek justice, and fewer still who do it with the smile and conviction of Denise Siwatula.
I first met Denise, a young lawyer with Synergie—a coalition of organizations providing comprehensive services to survivors of sexual violence—in Congo in 2010 at a vocational training center where women, some who had enlisted Denise’s services for their own cases, were working to rebuild their lives. From the instant I met her, I was struck by her engaging personality and how she lit up the room with spontaneous bursts of laughter.
As I listened to women recount how they had made their way to this center, I turned to Denise to ask about challenges that they faced to prosecuting their attackers. Her smile faded as she began to list off the many hurdles on her mind that day: the undue financial burden on women seeking justice, the lack of support from authorities even though a national law against rape had been passed, the emotional toll women faced recounting their story time and again to officials, and how easy it is for those found guilty to bribe their way free. Very few cases Denise works on result in true justice, yet she refuses to accept that impunity will reign. If she, someone trained in law, doesn’t strive for something better, she wondered, who will?
Denise’s own story is also one of dedication and perseverance. Out of a class of over 100 law students, she was one of only a handful of women. She refused to let gender barriers stand her way. When another potential hurdle presented itself during her first year of law school, she remained determine to continue down her path. In 2002 the looming Nyiragongo volcano erupted and lava covered the entire city of Goma. In the instant she had to gather her personal belongings, Denise grabbed just one thing: her first law school book, the one possession she knew she could not live without.
Her work is not without a personal toll. Day after day Denise bears witness to incredible pain and atrocity; the stories she hears never becoming easier to process.
Many of her cases are referred to her from Synergie’s Gesom hospital in Goma. Denise brought me to the hospital, and standing in front of a room where women were healing from fistula repair surgery, I asked her to tell me about some of the cases that she had been working on lately. Denise recalled a recent instance where the victim was just 10 months old. Her voice shook with anger as she described how she had no way of knowing whether the perpetrator of the attack, though found guilty, was still in prison. Likely not, she assumed, given the state of Goma’s prisons and a justice system marred by a culture of impunity and corruption. The walls of Gesom seemed to cave under the weight of the story, and as I closed my eyes I couldn’t shake the image of the infant arriving at the hospital’s gates.
To cope with the atrocities she is confronted with on a daily basis, Denise finds solace in her personal faith. A Catholic church sits just outside the Synergie headquarters, and Denise can be found there almost every morning. We went together one afternoon, and I watched as she bowed forward in prayer. What passed through her mind I will never know, but as she stood I felt from her a sense of calm and determination. As we walked back toward her office I sensed her lightness, and she broke out into a contagious fit of laughter once again.
Denise’s tireless efforts challenging the status quo, belief that a better justice system can exist, and commitment to the betterment of her community inspire me. That she is a young, female lawyer working to prosecute perpetrators of rape in the face of a legal system in shambles is an embodiment of the fortitude and resilience of women challenging assumptions of what it’s like to live in “the worst place in the world to be a woman or girl,” as eastern Congo is popularly known.
In Denise, survivors of sexual violence have found a fierce and steadfast advocate, and the brightness she exudes gives all around her hope that a better future will come.
Denise will be featured in Raise Hope for Congo’s upcoming video series I Am Congo: Amazing Lives in a Place the World Has Left for Dead, set for release this spring. Stay tuned at www.raisehopeforcongo.org.
Read the other posts in this International Women's Week series.
Photo: Denise Siwatula (Enough / Jeff Trussell)