'Now people will be more careful when they are brutalizing our girls and our women'

'Through the courts we have removed a bit of the stigma attached to these crimes, the women feel supported. If this project continues, it can be an example to other countries' - Madam Julia Sarkodie Mensah, Consultant Master and Registrar of the Sierra Leone Judiciary. Photo: Niamh Griffin.It’s early on Saturday in Freetown, Sierra Leone but the courthouse is slowly waking up.

A truck rattles through the large gates, carrying prisoners linked to sexual assault cases. Here ‘Saturday Courts’ hear rape and assault cases in a programme partially funded by Ireland through the UN.

Almost 2,000 cases were recorded in the country’s three rape crisis centres during 2012 alone, so the courts serve a vital function in reassuring girls and women that justice can be done.

UN legal officer Rakel Larsen takes me through the quiet corridors. Funding covers weekend salaries but doesn’t stretch to electricity for the silent fans or even lights.

She says the courts, which were set up in 2011, are slowly changing attitudes:

‘It can be a challenge. The Saturday Courts provides a protective, victim-friendly environment, but it can be busy with family members. I think people didn’t come forward before. Now the women’s groups make a lot of noise. And there is a lot of funding, a lot of support.”

She adds: “We don’t have specific case-processing time statistics but we are working on data. You hear of cases waiting seven years to be heard, but gender-based-violence cases don’t wait. Rapes are also heard during the week”.

Sensationalism or silence in the Congo: rape, death and the media

En route to Panzi Hospital in South Kivu, DRC. According to journalist André Thiel, this Congolese woman was kidnapped and raped for six years by Hutu rebels. Despite family support, she and her daughter have been rejected by villagers. Photo: Flickr/andré thiel.Rape and conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) are in the news. Like the daily global toll of avoidable death and illness, wars which do not obviously involve Americans, Europeans or Israelis usually struggle to be noticed.  However, the DRC media coverage has not been universally welcome.

However one looks at it, media coverage of the Democratic Republic of Congo has not been good. 

In the global media covered by the Alertnet world press tracker, between September 2006 (when the press data begins) and April 2007, there were 1,327 stories on the DRC, whereas Israel-Palestinian, Afghanistan and Iraq conflict generated 19,946, 29,987 and 43,589 stories respectively.

Yet, a study by the New York-based International Rescue Committee (IRC) across the DR Congo between January 2006 and April 2007 estimated that 45,000 extra people were dying each month from preventable diseases and starvation as a legacy of conflict. That death rate predated 2006, according to the IRC, and showed no sign of abating when the survey ended.