Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Some Preliminary Thoughts on Rape in eastern Congo

Stories about rape in Congo come in two varieties: one emphasizes their horrific details, the other their frequency. So there is Nick Kristof writing about women who are "re-raped" and little girls whose "eyes are luminous with fear." And then there are the headlines reporting that the incidence of rape increased 17-fold between 2004 and 2008, or that rape is 26 times more common in Congo than previously thought.

Both sorts of stories generate a sense of urgency about the issue, which is why advocacy and relief groups tend to latch on to them. But I suspect that this is short-sighted. Whatever sense of urgency they generate almost certainly results in diminishing returns, as journalists compete for the most lurid details or find they have to keep topping the last estimate to get published. The overarching effect is to make the problem seem foreign, incomprehensible, and irresolvable. The reader starts by feeling pity for the victims and ends by wondering what kind of people do this to their women. So it's worth stating what should be obvious: It's simply not true that rape has "become a sickening part of everyday life in the [DRC]," as one reporter wrote--and Congolese are fed up with that depiction of them.

That is not to say that rape isn't a problem. The stories you hear are true and the data aren't being manufactured, although they probably need more scrutiny than they've been given. But they confuse two things that need distinguishing. The stories that emphasize the horrific details tend to focus on those rapes committed by armed groups. Specifically, they focus on what researchers have called "rape with extreme violence" and what the soldiers themselves call "evil rape." These were the stories that first started percolating into the press, and once they became the signature atrocity of the war, they brought increased attention to the whole issue of rape. Researchers arriving with their laptops and questionnaires discovered, unsurprisingly, that rape was more common than earlier estimates of the number of "evil rapes" indicated. It's as if you first learned about serial killers in New York, and then "discovered" after doing some research that murder was more common than you previously believed, based on the number of serial killers. This really shouldn't be surprising, and it certainly doesn't mean that you can't stroll into Central Park without being clobbered by the Son of Sam.

This needs emphasizing not only to make sense of the news we hear about Congo, but also to figure out how to deal effectively with the problem. The first sort of rape is primarily a security problem. According to figures from Panzi hospital, over the past three years, some three quarters of rapes with extreme violence were committed by one group: the FDLR, the remnant offspring of the ex-genocidaires from Rwanda. Most of the rest were committed by militia who were incorporated into the Congolese army. Dealing with the FDLR and helping to train a more competent army would go a long way toward solving the problem. The second type of rape is more of a criminal matter. Its prevalence reflects the fact that the justice system has broken down and there's no longer any effective deterrence against would-be rapists.

In a future post, I'll describe various on-the-ground projects I saw that address the problem of rape. Most of them involve helping vulnerable women recover and get back on their feet, psychologically, socially, and economically. Many of the projects are worthy and effective. But only a few address the issue of impunity and justice. And none of them confront the security problem. Until that problem is addressed, women will go on being raped, in just the sort of ways that first brought the issue to the world's attention.

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