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conflict in the congo: rape culture in the drc

On October 25th Dr Mukwege of the Panzi Hospital in Bukavu was attacked at his home, a few blocks from the headquarters of MONUSCO, the United Nations Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

While motive is uncertain— there was nothing stolen or damaged at the site of the attack—Dr Mukwege was repeatedly shot at by a number of intruders after returning home to find his family being held hostage.

This story has gained international attention as Dr Mukwege heads up the Panzi hospital that opened in 1998 to treat victims of sexual violence and severe gynecological problems. Mukwege has been working through the countries’ 16 years of conflict, treating more than 40,000 women who have been victims of rape and other sexual violence. He has recently begun speaking out very publicly against the conflict and it is feared his newly visible activist voice has been the impetus for the attack.

The Congo has slipped for the past 16 years through the cracks of the international horror lottery— the luck of the draw that means your civil conflict might be treated with interest from the international community in a position to provide aid or support— thus far the Congo’s number hasn’t been called, so the pressure has fallen on individuals like Dr Mukwege to attempt to draw attention to the crisis, making them targets for politically motivated terror/killings themselves.

An uprising in the beginning of this year by the rebel group M23, led by war crimes suspect Bosco “the Terminator” Ntaganda, along with several other rebel factions has seen a sharp rise in reported instances of rape, with a disturbing increase in those victims being children. It is estimated that 48 women are raped every hour in the DRC, prompting many to label this conflict a ‘war against women.’

The attack on Dr Mukwege has also recently been condemned as an act of extreme misogyny by Lauren Wolfe, the director of Women Under Siege, a Women’s Media Center initiative on sexualised violence in conflict. While I agree that this war represents a devastating danger targeted mostly at women and their bodies, this sexual violence is representative of a much deeper and more complicated perspective on gender than pure hatred that Congolese men might supposedly hold for women.

If we believe that acts of aggression are borne primarily from an inability to process and accept self loathing or fear, then this rape culture is as much an act of extreme hatred of the perpetrator’s construct of self as it is ingrained cultural misogyny— an act of unknowing terror, developed in a land that is unable or unwilling to care for its citizens. Conflict has been ravaging the nation for 16 years, displacing millions of people, with just above 40% living in extreme poverty and hunger. Sixteen years is long enough for those born at the beginning of the war to have never lived free of conflict, existing without respite in a culture where rape has become normalised through its sheer pervasiveness.

Sexual violence in the Congo has become more than a symptom of an aggressively brutal war—systematic rape has long been a weapon of brutal military regimes, orchestrated to weaken moral and show supreme strength—this system of civil abuse has so permeated the lives and culture of those living in the DRC that it has now become an enactment of a misplaced sense of entitlement born to men who have, literally, nothing.

A recent study as part of the International Men and Gender Equality Survey reports that there is extensive numbers of men in the DRC who are victims of violence themselves, including sexual violence, and there is a clear link between being a victim of violence and the subsequent increased likelihood of becoming a perpetrator of violence yourself. Many, if not most, boys and girls in the Congo are born into a world where they have violence of all natures inflicted on them from birth, providing the psychological impetus to grow up into broken adults who are unable to process how these experiences have shaped their world view.

David Smith, the Guardian’s correspondent for Africa, recently crafted what can almost surmount to a plea to the international community, to understand that these men are not monsters who are perpetrating simply as misogynists in a Western understanding of the word, but victims themselves of a culture in which they have been raised surrounded by horror and hatred, with no education systems in place to counteract what can only amount to the worst kind of social conditioning. Statistics present in the article show ‘61.4% of men interviewed said women sometimes deserve to be beaten; 42.7% think that “if a woman doesn’t show physical resistance when forced to have sex, it’s not rape“; and 27.9% believe that sometimes women want to be raped.’ Yes, these statistics are shocking and revolting, but if anything, the pervasiveness of these beliefs alone is testament to the grotesque lack of psychological support available to these communities.

It is worth noting, if the last statistics threw you, that many in the DRC still believe that if they have sex with a child it will cure them of AIDS (an epidemic in this area). This alone should serve to illustrate that this sick rape culture is founded on a deeply rooted base of extreme personal fear that can only continue to grow as long as the international community does not assist in providing resources for education regarding ideas around the body, personal value, what violence does to communities and how it affects personal growth and development.

I will not prescribe to the idea that Congolese men are inherently monsters who hate women—I will not—as it harms both the men and women stuck incessantly in a space where very little has been implemented to care for or treat either the women or men afflicted by these atrocities. To insist that these men hate women implies the individual has a sense of agency that completely ignores the vacuum of absolute horror these people live within. The Western idea of misogyny – that a man who has had access to extensive education can foster an imbalanced hatred of women which is out of alignment with his cultural conditioning, presenting him as anomaly in our culture of supposed equality simply cannot apply in reference to the Congolese.

The real hatred expressed in this situation is the international community’s complete disregard for the brutal annihilation that they continue to allow to happen in the DRC, at the hands of men who are ravaged, hungry and desperate; who have had nothing for generations now, and continue to look to the future with very little in sight. The rape of the Congolese men, women and children should be a cause of international outcry. The fact that it isn’t shows perhaps the nature of how hatred might operate with as much prevalence but a whole lot more insidiousness here in the comfortable West.

By Audrey K. Hulm

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3 thoughts on “conflict in the congo: rape culture in the drc

  1. But why should we believe that acts of aggression “are borne primarily from an inability to process and accept self loathing or fear”?

    A lot of the acts you raise in this article seem just as likely to arise from the opportunism inherent in the Congo’s chaotic war-torn environment, because, during war, you’ve got a better chance of getting away with crimes you normally couldn’t in peacetime.

    From this perspective, it wouldn’t really matter if Congolese men thought raping young girls cured them of AIDS if they thought they could get caught and punished for it.

    While there’s no doubt that international support is vital in order for the situation in the Congo to change, I think your false dichotomy between Congolese men “hating women” and Congolese men suffering from “extreme personal fear” is perhaps superfluous the fact that law and order is the most vital precursor to fewer crimes in a war-torn environment.

  2. While I can agree with you that opportunism fostered by a relatively lawless environment would dramatically increase the numbers of rapes- as is mentioned in the Guardian article I linked to- I don’t think the lack of obvious retribution can explain away the cultural conditioning which instigates a desire to rape in individuals- if that were the case, rape wouldn’t exist in the over-surveilled Western world either, and this is obviously not the case. Rape is a symptom of a sick culture and while better systems for policing and monitoring it would surely lower its numbers, it will never go away without investment in research and education into the psychology behind a rapists mentality.

  3. But many people – not least on Lip – would strongly dispute the claim that the West is “over-surveilled” in regards to instances of rape. Such crimes, even in the West, are under-reported and under-prosecuted and are, as the recent Jimmy Saville/clergy sexual abuse scandals have shown, disproportionately commited by those who think they can get away with it.
    In this sense, the relationship between an abusive priest and the children under his care is not so dissimilar to the relationship between a Congolese soldier and the villagers he has ‘liberated’- in both cases the former can act without fear of recrimination from the latter.
    In the end, no amount of education campaigns or research into the psychology of rapists will change the fact that a system which doesn’t have proper checks and balances will lead to abuse. Just as no amount of anti-car theft education campaigns will ever be more effective than car alarms and locks in reducing carjackings.

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