There are signs of positive action to counter the culture of gender-based violence in Katanga province in the southeast of the Democratic Republic of Congo, DRC.
Perhaps the most significant step taken in recent months has been the creation of a new police unit to protect young women and girls, which was officially inaugurated in the provincial capital Lubumbashi on April 21.
The initiative is being wholly funded by the United Nations Population Fund, UNFPA, to the tune of 25,000 US dollars.
Aloïs Kalasa, the police officer in charge of the new unit, expressed hope that the initiative would make a lasting difference to the lives of countless women in Katanga.
"With the wars that we have known in the DRC, there have been violations of human rights in general, and of the rights of women and children in particular," he said. "The police unit has been created in order to avoid this in future, and deal with infractions committed in this area."
According to Kalasa, the new unit has a mandate to deal with violence against women in all its forms, but has a particular emphasis on sexual and domestic abuse.
Residents of Lubumbashi have broadly welcomed the initiative.
"The creation of this police unit is good news," said Patrice Binda. "Finally, women have a proper place to file their complaints in cases of violence."
But others point out that many victims of gender-based crimes are still too afraid to testify against their attackers. In cases of domestic violence, they often fear that making a formal complaint against their husbands could actually leave them worse off.
"It is good to create this new police unit for eradicating the violence done to women, but it is still necessary for women to have the courage to assert their rights and, above all, to know how to lodge a complaint," said Maitre Gisèle Ngungwa.
Kalasa acknowledges that the reluctance of women to come forward needs to be addressed.
"Many women are afraid to come forward to denounce perpetrators when they are victims," he said. "They often fear things changing. Part of this is because of their culture, but there is also a general unwillingness to participate in a course of action that may require some effort."
At the same time, Kalasa says his unit has had some early successes, and expects more will follow as people become better informed about its role.
Within the first week of launch, a woman came forward with a claim that her husband had raped their two-year-old daughter. Following a medical examination of the child, the husband was charged with rape and sentenced to death.
According to Kalasa, since the unit was inaugurated, there have been a number of other cases where women have come forward and testified to violent behaviour by their husbands, resulting in a number of arrests.
Some Lubumbashi residents, however, question whether the courts are the best way of resolving domestic disputes.
"When there is a problem in the home, I think the best way to fix it is with dialogue and not by going to court,” said Denise Mulanga, a woman from the town. “If I filed a complaint against my husband, it would be difficult for us to continue living together because my husband would no longer have any trust in me. "
Françoise Konde, also from Lubumbashi, added, "We are Africans. We have our own way of arranging things, It is not in our culture for women to file complaints against their husbands. I can assure you that divorce would then be inevitable."
Kalasa recognises these concerns, but thinks that they are exaggerated.
"You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs," he said. "A woman who files a complaint against her husband has already considered the consequences. She knows that she must do battle once and for all with her husband so that there is real change. So far, I have not heard of men considering divorce because they were detained. They recognise that they were at fault and are ready to ask forgiveness from their wives."
As an example, Kalasa highlighted the case of a woman who recently reported that her husband hit her on a regular basis.
"We arrested her husband and he stayed in our small cell for five days," he said. "He is now out of detention and back with his wife, and there is peace in their home. He recognised that what he did was wrong and asked his wife for forgiveness. Our goal is not to encourage divorce, but to recognise that man and woman are partners, and help them deal with their relationship."
The police unit has been welcomed by local NGOs, with some saying that the initiative should now be rolled out to the rest of the country.
Mireille Kulufya, from the Centre for Social Integration of Abandoned Women, says, "It’s an encouraging action, but battered women don’t live only in Lubumbashi…. Violence against women takes place in all 11 provinces of our country. The government must build on this inititiave and protect all Congolese women."
Héritier Maila is an IWPR-trained journalist in the Democratic Republic of Congo.