Gendering Justice in Humanitarian Spaces: Opportunity and (Dis)empowerment Through Gender‐Based Legal Development Outreach in the Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo

Date01 September 2016
Published date01 September 2016
Gendering Justice in Humanitarian Spaces:
Opportunity and (Dis)empowerment Through
Gender-Based Legal Development Outreach in the
Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo
Milli Lake
Ilot Muthaka
Gabriella Walker
Why have women in eastern DR Congo increasingly turned to domestic
courts in the aftermath of sexual violence, despite the fact that the state has
consistently failed to provide basic goods and services to its citizens? Moreover,
how do victims of violence interpret their first encounters with state law in an
environment characterized by institutional fragility and humanitarian gover-
nance? This article analyzes the experiences and reflections of 50 self-
reported victims of sexual violence in eastern DR Congo. We find that human
rights NGOs have served as critical mediators in persuading victims of vio-
lence to pursue legal remedy for sexual crimes. However, rather than being
socialized to prioritize formal accountability mechanisms in precisely the ways
that the architects of legal outreach programs intended, we find that victims
of violence have turned to the law for a combination of material and ideational
factors. Some appear to have internalized emerging norms of punitive crimi-
nal justice, while others have adopted the language of law instrumentally, in
order to access crucial socio-material benefits. We identify a paradox of oppor-
tunity and disempowerment, therefore, that characterizes our interviewees’
experiences with the law.
In the eastern provinces of the Democratic Republic of Congo
(DR Congo), victims of sexual violence are turning to the courts in
greater numbers than ever before. To the casual observer, it might
seem unlikely that vulnerable victims of sexual abuse would turn
to the law in the aftermath of violence, particularly when they face
possibilities of retribution from perpetrators or family members.
This should be especially true in a country like DR Congo, where
the state is frequently described as “collapsed” (Herbst and Mills
2013; Trefon et al. 2011) and the justice system has been charac-
terized by corruption, nepotism and mismanagement since the
early years of independence (Baaz et al 2013; Vlassenroot and
Please direct all correspondence to Milli Lake, Arizona State University’s School of
Politics and Global Studies; e-mail:
Law & Society Review, Volume 50, Number 3 (2016)
C2016 Law and Society Association. All rights reserved.
Raeymaekers 2004). Furthermore, sexual crimes are deeply stig-
matized across much of central Africa, mitigating chances that vic-
tims will report incidents of their own volition (Bartels et al. 2013;
Kalonda 2013; Palermo et al 2014; Verelst et al. 2014).
However, in spite of a dilapidated legal system and a seem-
ingly inhospitable social environment, victims of sexual violence
have turned to DR Congo’s courts to seek legal remedy in
increasing numbers in recent years. A growing international
emphasis on building the rule of law in the aftermath of conflict,
as well as an increasing humanitarian focus on gender issues,
have meant that global donors have invested heavily in improv-
ing access to justice for women. Programs designed to promote
legal accountability for gendered crimes have been implemented
across North and South Kivu and the result has been that, over
the past 5 years, the vast majority of cases passing through crimi-
nal courts in the east have involved sexual offenses (Askin 2011;
Douma and Hilhorst 2012; Lake 2014b). This represents a radi-
cal break from earlier patterns of nonreporting. However, to
date, we know very little about why victims of sexual crimes are
choosing to opt for formal legal remedy.
How vulnerable individuals come to see their particular strug-
gles as matters relevant to state law, and when they decide to
address their grievances through formal legal channels, have been
crucial questions for scholars and human rights activists (see, e.g.,
Massoud 2006; McCann 2006, 2014; Widner 2004). While recent
work has shown that prosecuting violence is important in its own
right—and necessary for ensuring the transition from cyclical insta-
bility and violence to stable and durable peace (Sikkink 2011; Sik-
kink and Walling 2007)—criminal justice is most immediately
intended to provide accountability, recognition, and healing to vic-
tims (ABA 2014; M
endez 1997; O’Connell 2005; UNDP 2013). It
is thus surprising that so little attention has yet been paid to the
intended beneficiaries of legal outreach efforts.
Without local buy-in, and without victims and wit nesses willing
to come forward to report crimes to the police or provide testi-
mony in court, efforts to strengthen legal systems and build public
confidence in new forms of dispute resolution will surely fail. Fur-
thermore, without input from local participants, we remain ill-
equipped to evaluate the potential for legal development aid to
contribute to its overarching program objectives of empowering
women and building respect for the rule of law. The perspectives
of first-time participants in legal processes are especially salient in
postconflict settings, where international resources are channeled
toward institution-building in large sums and where local com-
munities often have little prior experience with state law.
540 Gendering Justice
To begin to understand how increased legal accountability for
gender-based crimes has been experienced on the ground, not
least by those it is most directly intended to benefit, we conducted
in-depth interviews with 50 individuals at various stages in the
pursuit of criminal justice. Through these interviews, we analyzed
how women involved in legal processes conceptualized criminal
justice, what motivated their decisions to seek formal legal rem-
edy given their limited prior experience with the law, and how
they reflected, post hoc, on their experiences as legal subjects.
Our interviews revealed that a dual paradox of opportunity
and disempowerment overshadowed both decisions to utilize legal
avenues in the first place, as well as overall experiences in doing
so. Rather than being motivated by exclusively material or idea-
tional factors as earlier studies have implied (e.g., Douma and Hil-
horst 2012), we found that many interviewees expressed a sense of
agency and empowerment at being able to utilize legal tools to
seek symbolic and material redress. In turning to legal institutions
for the first time, many embraced the language of the law as a
powerful new vehicle through which they could call out and con-
demn previously tolerated abuses. Others were drawn to legal ave-
nues by the promise of reparations or other forms of much-
needed material assistance, such as free healthcare or child sup-
port offered by legal aid programs. Often, actors turned to legal
avenues as a form of last resort, viewing the pursuit of civil and
criminal charges against perpetrators as the only way they could
access necessary socio-economic support structures. Others still
expressed many of these sentiments simultaneously, espousing the
injustices of the violence committed against them but reiterating
their urgent and overriding need for practical material support.
Participants in criminal cases expressed similar ambivalence
with regard to their experiences as legal subjects, frequently
reporting seemingly contradictory sentiments concerning the value
of legal remedy. In spite of overwhelmingly negative experiences
in practice, many interviewees nonetheless found validation in the
pursuit of legal justice, even when the process failed spectacularly
to deliver on its most basic of promises to them. Despite feeling
deeply betrayed by what the law had promised, therefore, many
nevertheless professed that they were pleased to have reported
their cases to legal authorities and that they would do so again
under similar circumstances. The fact that our interviewees
responses were characterized by such deep-seated ambivalence
It should be noted that there are also a number of male victims of sexual violence;
however, due to the different constraints often faced by male victims, as well as the fact that
the vast majority of court cases and legal outreach efforts target female victims of sexual vio-
lence, in this study we restricted our sample of interviewees to women.
Lake, Muthaka, &Walker 541

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