Emma Fanning is Oxfam’s protection manager in the DRC
If you’ve been following the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) recently – and given its unchanging, grim headlines, it’s not surprising if you haven’t – the story has probably been about rape. Large scale, brutal, dehumanising rape. The Congo has been dubbed the « rape capital » ; in just one attack in Walikale, a mining district in North Kivu, over 300 women were raped in August ; almost 7,700 rapes were reported between January and June this year, over half in North and South Kivu; programme staff look knowingly around the room and say «every Congolese man is a potential rapist ».
For most international visitors rape remains the only story: in September, after the Walikale rapes, the stream was steady, asking assemblies of women to raise their hands if they’d been raped. We once had a journalist ask us if we could find a rape victim who was herself born of rape for them to interview. Edward Behr’s famous book on the life of the foreign correspondent, ‘Anybody here been raped and speaks English’ takes its title from a question shouted across a crowd of survivors from a massacre in Stanleyville, now Kisangani (Eastern DRC) in 1964. Clearly for the international media, little has changed in Congo. Most visitors stop for an obligatory visit at the big hospitals in Bukavu and Goma that do an excellent job, not just of ensuring medical treatment to women, but supporting their rehabilitation from trauma.
However, it becomes hard to move beyond these terrible facts – both for media and for programmes. Allocating money to sexual violence projects is a good way to feel we are doing something about DRC. But very few projects address the other forms of violence that communities experience (protection projects), or violence against children (child protection): while the whole sector is under-funded, most of the money goes to mitigating Sexual and Gender Based Violence (SGBV).
Sexual violence is indeed a terrible problem, but is it the only one, or even the most important? It depends who you talk to. If you go to the hospitals, or projects for victims, of course the story is sexual violence, and almost always, its effects on women – with the unspoken corollary of the evil of congolese men. On the other hand, if you talk to most communities, sexual violence is but one problem among many: and it’s one that worries both men and women.
· One community we talked to told us how at the beginning of the year they were looted on average once a month.
· In many communities people are regularly imprisoned without reason, women are raped by armed men and civilians, and girls are enticed into prostitution.
· Women tell us that on the way to market they have to pass through so many check points lined by the various authorities, each taking their cut, that often they make no profit on their sales.
· In one area a former rebel group integrated into the national army, recently went to schools demanding lists of children who had been demobilized: the same group forces boys to take their ammunition to the battle front, and stands over them as they fire.
· Displaced people have to pay renegade soldiers to pass to safety as they flee rebel attacks.
Funding actions to prevent and respond to sexual violence is important. But too much focus on sexual violence as the latest hot topic ignores the problems as communities actually experience them and the far reaching political change needed to stop all forms of violence. We need to listen to communities describe their experience of violence and engage accordingly. We need governments, both DRC and donor countries to engage politically. And then, maybe, we will see the lives of men and women, old and young, start to improve.
Update: talk of the devil, or in this case, the Economist. This week’s magazine has a three page feature on Rape and War.