KIGALI, RWANDA – At 15 years old, Rochelle* had already experienced plenty of hardship in her young life: She was born without the ability to speak as well as a slight mental disability, and became an orphan at a young age.
Without a voice, Rochelle was left deeply vulnerable. A neighbor took note of her struggles—not to help her, but to harm her.
Preyed Upon Steps from Her Own Home
Rochelle had been walking from her home to collect water one morning—a trip she’d made hundreds of times before—when an older neighbor grabbed her, forced her into his home and violently raped her. As a long-time neighbor, he knew about Rochelle’s disability, and that she couldn’t tell anyone what he’d done. He sent her away, convinced he would never be punished for the attack.
Rochelle was crushed, but her attacker was right: Without the ability to express herself, she could only suffer in silence.
Several months later, her aunt noticed Rochelle’s swelling belly, and they discovered she had become pregnant as a result of the abuse. Asked who had done this, Rochelle could only point to the man living next door.
Police helped arrest the man for the abuse, but because Rochelle was physically incapable of giving a strong verbal testimony for evidence, they released him soon after, and he returned to his home next door. Rochelle’s family was left devastated once again.
The Battle for Evidence
While Rochelle’s attacker was walking free, a Rwandan state prosecutor was helping to build a legal case on the girl’s behalf. Because Rochelle couldn’t testify, he knew they’d need airtight proof to support her story—and he called IJM Rwanda for help.
“Rochelle’s story affected me a lot,” says IJM Client Care Specialist Brigitte Mukashema. “As an orphan living with a disability, she was left extremely vulnerable. To hear about this older man (himself married with children) raping her…It was so troubling for me.”
Several months after IJM began helping on the case, Rochelle gave birth to a healthy baby boy. IJM and the prosecutor arranged a DNA test to prove the attacker was the father, but the man avoided every official request to give his DNA sample. Staying relentless, the team secured a warrant and forced him to cooperate.
Within two months, they had the proof they needed: The DNA test proved with near certainty that Rochelle’s 56-year-old neighbor was the father of her baby.
The evidence spoke louder than any testimony—and louder than any lies this man could tell.
On March 6, 2014, the judge found Rochelle’s attacker guilty and sentenced him to life in prison. He will also pay a fine to the court, to be used to support Rochelle’s healing.
IJM Senior Lawyer James Nuwagaba sees Rochelle’s case as an important breakthrough for vulnerable children living with communication disabilities. He says, “It is difficult but possible that communication with a child victim of rape can be done through signs as collaborating other statements and evidence on file, thereby leading to the conviction of the perpetrator.”
Given a Chance to Find Her Voice
Rochelle’s communication had been limited only to family members who knew her well. IJM aftercare arranged a sign language teacher to help Rochelle express herself. It’s a crucial tool her impoverished family had never been able to give her.
Learning to sign will also help Rochelle in IJM’s trauma-focused therapy program. IJM social workers will help her heal from the abuse and process the emotions of her new role as a mother.
IJM also connected Rochelle’s family with other social services, like access to health care and food support, to help care for her baby and protect the family from further abuse.