Today is the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, so expect a rash of stories about sexual violence in the DRC’s current conflict. Here Rachel Hastie, Oxfam’s protection adviser, cautions against a simplistic ‘heart of darkness’ narrative, and argues for a more nuanced and human understanding of the phenomenon.
There’s a lovely photograph in the atrium of the Oxfam office. It shows Masumbuko, a 36 year old man, draping his arms around his wife, Grace’s, neck as she shyly looks to the camera. It was taken by fashion photographer Rankin for the exhibition ‘From Congo with Love’. Masumbuko says “I fell in love with my wife the first time I saw her. There was something about her – the way she was talking, the way she was walking, her nose, her ears…. I can’t go a day without looking at her.”
It’s sweet and lovely, and all the more so because they live in eastern Congo, which has been described as ‘the rape capital of the world’ – Rankin’s photo gives me a glance into the lives of these two people that jars with the protection reports and field assessments sitting on my desk just a few metres away.
Whether it be Bosnia, Liberia, Darfur, or DRC, sexual violence has been an aspect of many of the conflicts and humanitarian responses I’ve been involved in during my time with Oxfam. Rape and other forms of sexual violence are an appalling violation, devastating in their immediate and long term consequences for individuals and their families and communities.
In recent years there have been some significant gains in getting sexual violence in conflict onto the international agenda, largely won by the many women’s groups, organisation and individuals who have campaigned tirelessly in the face of hostility, indifference and derision. There is still a long way to go, as news reports from Syria, eastern DRC, and Mali illustrate, but who would have thought just 10 years ago that we would now have a Special Representative to the UN Secretary General on Sexual Violence in Armed Conflict – the formidable Zainab Hawa Bangura, a security council resolution with a ‘naming and shaming’ mechanism, and a sitting Head of State indicted by the ICC for rape as crime against humanity?
There has been a huge amount of public campaigning to make the extent of rape in war and its consequences more visible, to galvanize more concerted action from donors, policy makers, the international community and Governments around the world. Yet there is something that makes me very uneasy about the way the issue is being raised and what the long-term consequences of that might be.
Just a couple of weeks ago The Guardian ran a story that one-third of Congolese men admit committing sexual violence. Can this be true? In a country of with an estimated population of more than 20 million men and boys aged 15+ are there really almost 7 million who admit to being rapists? Well, no it’s not true of course, of the 708 men interviewed in and around Goma, including in a military base in the conflict-affected east of the country, a third admitted to committing acts of sexual violence. This in itself is shocking, the levels of disclosure give an indication of the extent of acts of sexual violence, and how little sanction these men expect from their peers and community, but it does not equate to a third of all Congolese men being rapists. Similar headlines periodically appear from conflict zones around the world, and the aid agency assessment reports all too frequently portray conflict zones as populated by violent male rapists where women only exist as passive victims.
This news coverage has not done justice to the report of the International Men and Gender Equality Survey (IMAGES), from which the statistic was sourced. IMAGES has produced a very intelligent, and thoughtful report that deserves much more careful consideration. The researchers themselves highlight that sexual violence is a commonplace occurence and 9% of men and 22% of women they interviewed had experienced it during the conflict. Sexual violence isn’t experienced in isolation – killings, torture, lost homes, livelihoods and the death of family members are all part of people’s experience of conflict. Rigid gender roles create vulnerabilities for women and for men, and the report’s authors call for greater focus on the impact of disempowerment of men and how gender relations are affected by conflict in order that the root causes and drivers of such violence are addressed. Three quarters of the men they spoke to said they felt ashamed to face their families because they can’t provide for their basic financial means.
There’s no shortage of similar analysis: a fascinating and comprehensive report from The Nordic Africa Institute provides a compelling study on how an aggressively militarised masculinity is promoted during times of conflict and of its impact on gender relations and violence against women, as well as against men who do not conform to that ideal. HEAL Africa’s research highlights the disparity between idealised masculinity and the reality of men’s lives, again making the link to male violence in conflict and the community.
The study’s author calls on humanitarians to recognise the interdependent and interactive nature of gender, but we do seem to prefer it simplistic: men as the perpetrators of evil, women as the pathetic victims, without looking at the root causes of violence and how we need to address them in order to have any positive impact. There’s also little space for the men and boys who are themselves victims of (largely) male violence, and those men who are working to promote greater gender equity and to care for and support women and girl survivors of violence. There’s something quite alarming about how comfortable we are in portraying African men and women in this way – reminiscent of a ‘heart of darkness’ narrative of African men as barbaric savages incapable of loving and caring for their wives, daughters and mothers.
All these reports give us a good insight into gender relations in conflict, the impact of militarised masculinity, the economic stresses that prevent men providing for their families, the underlying cultural and social relations, beliefs and assumptions that create startling gender inequalities and the link to violence against women and girls. So why don’t we use this knowledge to develop better understanding, cleverer programmes, and campaigning on the issue? In asking that question, I’ve encountered resistance and occasional hostility and aggression that has left me with some difficult questions to ponder.
Are the gains that have been made in women’s rights and on sexual violence in particular still so tenuous that we have to keep using shock statistics to get attention and action? Can we keep negating and colluding in the invisibility of the sexual and other violence targeted at men and boys in places like the DRC in order to make the violence against women and girls more visible? And how does that impact on our understanding of gender relations and the root causes of such violence which lies at the heart of any effective work to tackle gender-based violence?
I’d like to take a more sophisticated approach to the understanding of gender in conflict, to really start taking on board some of the excellent research carried out in recent years. For all the horror stories, the rapists and the murderers, whose acts of violence are depicted in horrifying detail in the growing stack of reports on my desk, there are also thousands, hundreds of thousands, millions of people like Masumbuko and Grace, who fall in love with each other, marry, have children, care for and love each other, and they need a place in this narrative too.