DOUALA, Cameroon (WOMENSENEWS)--Sophie Mixte, who is in her 30s, says she was raped three times growing up. But it wasn't until the third incident that her parents found out and reported it to the police.
When her mother turned to authorities for help though, it didn't do her any good, she says.
"The police started to play around the case with my mother, persuading her to drop the case," she says.
Instead of going to court, the case was settled privately. The family of her rapist paid her mother $200, the equivalent of Mixte's hospital bill after the rape.
In Cameroon, rape victims can obtain medical treatment in hospitals. Doctors test for pregnancy, HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases and make HIV-prevention drugs and emergency contraceptives available. They also administer a physical examination that can provide evidence in court that the rape occurred, as well as be used to obtain an abortion, which is otherwise illegal.
But the combination of an intrusive medical exam and an intrusive legal system--as well as strong cultural beliefs about rape victims--seem to discourage many rape victims from seeking justice.
The National Network of Associations of Aunties, a coalition of groups working to combat rape in Cameroon, estimates that 500,000 rapes occur every year in the country. But many are never documented because of underreporting.
Dr. Jean Pierre Koubitim of the St. Padre Pio Hospital in Douala agrees. He says rape incidents are a daily occurrence, with victims ranging from children to adults, attacks occurring inside and outside the home, and perpetrators being strangers or relatives. Yet because of underreporting, the hospital receives just 15 to 20 reports of sexual violence per year, mostly of attempted rape, he says.
"The youngest victim is about 4 years old and was raped by a cousin in their home," he says.
One Rape Report
Epossi Adeline is the director of the Association for the Fight Against Violence Toward Women, a nongovernmental group that operates a center for victims of gender violence. She says the center has received 70 cases of violence against women since it began operations in 2010. Fifty of these were reports of domestic violence; just one was a rape report.
She also attributes this to underreporting, not to low prevalence.
According to the Cameroon Penal Code, the penalty for rape is five to 10 years in prison when victims are 16 and older and 15 to 25 years in prison when victims are under 16. Prison time may be doubled or for life when offenders have authority over or custody of the victims, are public servants or religious ministers, or are assisted by one or more people.
Convicted rapists rarely receive long prison terms though, says Esther Ngale, president of the Cameroon Association of Female Jurists. She says that, in general, those proven guilty of rape may receive sentences ranging from six months to five years.
Jacob Angoh Angoh, a member of Legal Power Law Firm, made up of barristers and solicitors in Cameroon and Nigeria, says a rape victim must file a formal complaint at a police unit in order to start a case.
The Cameroon Penal Code defines rape as any female compelled to have sexual intercourse with a man "by force or moral ascendancy."
Angoh Angoh says that the victim should be able to prove that the sexual relationship was not consensual.
"Hence, she must prove that she shouted or she complained to the first person she met at the given opportunity," he says.
Once a complaint is made, the police usually arrest the suspect immediately, he says. It is up to the police to decide whether to pursue the case. If police decide the case has sufficient evidence, they forward it to the state counsel.
Ngale says the victim can choose to use the state prosecutor or hire a private lawyer.
Angoh Angoh encourages rape victims not to be afraid to report incidents because rape cases are not tried in an open court in Cameroon. He says the state maintains victims' reputation by hearing cases in the chamber of the magistrate in the presence of the two parties, the lawyers, the magistrate and any witnesses.
"Because if the public knows that a girl is a victim of rape, how many men would dare approach her?" he asks.
During the trial, Angoh Angoh says the victim must establish evidence that she resisted or was subdued by the person who allegedly raped her.
"This can be proven by circumstantial evidence, such as wounds on her body," he says. "If she shouted and people heard her, those people would support her evidence."
Otherwise, he says, the court may assume "that some girls just make up such stories to make money."
Angoh Angoh says the law also provides for a defense of provocation, in which case the court presumes that the woman contributed to the act. For instance, taking into consideration whether the woman dressed a certain way, invited the perpetrator into her room or worked as a prostitute.
He says the law also takes into account whether they'd been in a relationship before or if the woman had been giving the impression that they were in a relationship by accepting gifts from him.
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Irene Zih Fon is a correspondent for Global Press Institute's Cameroon News Desk. She covers issues ranging from gender justice to entrepreneurship to social equality.