By Irene Zih Fon
Wednesday, January 25, 2012
Rape victims in Cameroon can get medical treatment at hospitals and file a police report to set a case in motion, but providing evidence to prove that rape occurred can be difficult. Others don't report incidents at all because of poverty or shame.
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.
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.
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