Monday, January 19, 2009

Sexual Violence in the DRC: What Do We Know?

The Wilson Center held a seminar on Thursday (yes-the second seminar that day) on the dynamics of sexual violence in DRC, featuring two researchers from the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative and one from the International Center for Research on Women. The two from Harvard, Michael VanRooyen and Jocelyn Kelly (VR-K), discussed their research on the perpetrators and victims of sexual violence, based on their "mixed methodology" approach.

[Photo on right from CongoWomen, a multimedia exhibit on sexual violence in the DRC.]

Because victims of sexual abuse are often stigmatized and subject to retaliation if they complain or even report their abuse, population-based surveys are not enough to reveal the extent and nature of the problem. They don't, said VR-K, "give us a fine-grained sense of what services and interventions are needed." Instead, the researchers used a combination of qualitative and quantitative approaches to address such questions as: Who is committing the rape? When? Of which women? at what time of day? and with what impact on the family and community? What interventions do the victims most value? What interventions can help protect women, or reduce the incidence of rape?

The scope of the problem is difficult to estimate. The UN says that at least 27,000 women were raped in south Kivu in 2006 alone; the NGO Care says that at least 400 women are raped each month, and that the overall number is probably much higher; and journalists often say that there have been more than 100,000 victims in the last few years. VanRooyen and Kelly interviewed victims at Denis Mukwege's hospital in Bukavu. The average age of the victims, they found, was 36 years, with a range from 3 1/2 to 80. On the whole, less than five percent of the victims were younger than 15.

It took the women an average of 16 months to make their way to the hospital from the time of their attack. Only eight percent were able to access medical help within 72 hours. Most of the attacks took place at night, in the victims' homes. Only 36 percent took place during the day. This is in contrast to Darfur, where victims are typically attacked during the day as they gather firewood or water.

Regarding the nature of the rape: 73 percent were gang raped--and the level of trauma the women suffered varied with the number of assailants. 19 percent were ; a similar number were abducted by militia and taken as sex slaves; these women were most likely to become pregnant. Some 4.3 percent were raped in the presence of their family, and one percent were force-raped by family members and other victims. But these statistics come from women who made it to the hospital, and may not be representative of all rape victims.

The after-effects on the women could be as severe as the attack. Some 32 percent were rejected by their own families, particularly their husbands. An additional 15 percent were kicked out out of their communities and forced to forage on their own, even as they still took care of their children. Victims also suffered from HIV and other STIs; experienced fistula and pelvic damage; and gave birth to stigmatized children who face a desperately uncertain future.

Somewhat to the surprise of the researchers, the intervention the women most appreciated--aside from emergency medical treatment--was training in income generation. The women said that having a skill, and being able to make money, not only gave them a sense of empowerment, but helped them reintegrate into their communities, by giving them important, income-generating skills that the communities see as potentially valuable.

Perhaps VR-K's most distressing finding was that there is a broad consensus that the incidence of rape is increasing, not decreasing, even as the war winds down. Rape is becoming normalized, pervasive, and contagious. A culture of rape has developed.

VanRooyen and Kelly suggested that many more local clinics are needed, to give women access to emergency medical treatment, and those that exist need additional training in handling the psycho-social consequences of rape. More robust sensitization campaigns are needed--both to educate men whose wives and relatives have been raped, and to counteract the growing "normalization" of sexual violence. VR-K also suggested that MONUC could be used to patrol neighborhoods and protect women. There is an overwhelming need for punishment and an end to impunity, a severe problem in an area without any effective justice system.

Mary Ellsberg, vice president for the International Center for Research on Women, emphasized that women are not only victims of violence but also survivors, activists, and leaders in the struggle against it. The growing "normalization" of rape in a war zone can ramify through generations, and leave a cultural and humanitarian deficit long after the war has ended. Cambodian university students, for example, still stage gang rapes as a form of entertainment and as a bonding experience--some 30 years after Khmer Rouge "normalized" mass murder. There is a crying need to bring men into the solution, she said, and to find men willing to be spokesmen and role models in developing alternate cultural visions of masculinity.

Both Ellsberg and VR-K stressed how difficult it is to understand the rapists' motivations. Sometimes rape is simply an opportunistic crime. But situations can vary dramatically: some women are horrifically maimed, others taken as "bush wives," and others gangraped as a way to create bonds within militia groups.

I came away from the session sobered by how little is being done about the problem, despite the fact that rape in eastern Congo has become such a well-known and well-publicized problem. Research on the topic remains preliminary; there are still only a handful of clinics and hospitals addressing the needs of the women; police and local authorities still don't have any capacity or willingness to protect the population; and overall it appears that the problem is getting worse not better. That is a pretty distressing record.

It strikes me that it would be an important exercise to map out the ongoing incidence of rape in the region (on the Ushahidi model of real-time crowdsourcing), to plot the localities where clinics are in place and indicate whether those clinics have specialized rape services, and to sponsor a study on what interventions work and how they might be expanded. Such an exercise could then serve as the basis for a lobbying campaign to bring in a serious amount of money from donor governments. Even though many NGOs have done wonderful and heroic work, it's clear they aren't able to scale up enough to address the magnitude of the problem. We need big money--the kind of dollars only governments have. And developing an outline of the interventions that are needed and how much they might cost can be an effective lobbying tool. It is not impossible to imagine that the new Administration would be very interested in promoting a major new initiative on this problem, given Hilary Clinton's known interest in women and Susan Rice's in Africa. And having a serious and credible plan to address the problem would be a very helpful tool in persuading them that this is something that can and should be done.

No comments:

Post a Comment