Rape is not the only story in the Congo

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, IMG_7561-1it’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).

IMG_9144-1Sexual 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.

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8 Responses to “Rape is not the only story in the Congo”
  1. Paul Buckley

    Presumably if you sat down with people and talked more generally about their lives, you would find out that there is more to life in the DRC than violence of any kind, right? You’re a protection manager, so I guess you focus on physical security, but presumably topics such as land ownership, access to markets, education, healthcare etc are just as important. Could a better title for this piece by ‘Violence is not the only story in the Congo’?

  2. Michael Dettbarn

    Thanks for the great article. That definitely put things in a differente perspective. A crucial question remains: Is there any hope that the current congolese government can bring about real change?

    @Paul: Then again, isn’t a lack of ownership, a lack of access to markets and a lack of education a form of violence aswell? That is, if you recognize that there’s always people or institutions involved giving or not giving access to these needs.

  3. Pete H

    Thanks for this article putting some perspective on the stories that tend to make it to the news. And good luck in broadening the discussion and aspirations of the donor/NGO community and others.

  4. Beverley Jones

    This article left me uncomfortable because, coming as it does through the outlet of one of the largest UK international NGOs, it could so easily discourage the growing seriousness with which funders are responding to sexual violence – and not just in DRC. I would be the first to agree that a too narrow definition of gender-based violence (for example, one that refuses to acknowledge that men also experience violence because of their sex)can distort priorities in contexts where there are a multiplicity of issues affecting wellbeing. I would also agree with Paul Buckley that there is more to life than violence in any country with a reputation for violence. But the title suggests that too much attention is being given to this issue, whereas I suspect that insufficient attention is being given to the wide range of social consequences for men, women and children in situations where sexual-based violence becomes endemic. Surely a more constructive line would have been that the consequences of violence should be taken more seriously – and the work being done on sexual-based violence in DRC provides an important entry point for expanding this response, rather than being a competitor for resources.

  5. Most funding on rape is not falling under the “protection” category, as the initiatives giving legal support, or strengthening prosecution are few and far between. Most programs, and the mushrooming NGO-sector support care of women after rape. Often without sufficient respect for the victims.

    I would like to throw in the lack of a broader sexual and reproductive rights and services. While sexual violence work is well funded, the lip-service to reproductive services is seldom translated in field activities or funding. Perhaps time to move back to the bigger picture, like justice and health services?

  6. Emma Fanning

    Agreed with all observations above on the need to broaden the general debate, and advocate strongly for basic services. Chronic development needs underlie the humanitarian crisis, but this is another debate. As Michael says, there is a strong link between violence and access to these. In Eastern DRC, unless there is political will to end the violence, the rest cannot be addressed. Political will, both from the DRC government and the International community is needed to end the violence and to ensure that State actors are accountable to the population.

    The story that keeps comes out of DRC is Sexual Violence. The often-exclusive focus on this obscures the need for political pressure and change. More difficult issues such as Security Sector and judicial reform that require more than funding, need to be faced. Agreed that it is important that there is an increasing global focus on women’s experience of violence: but this should neither obscure other crimes nor be at the expense, as Sam says, of a better basic services.

    Over New Year’s weekend, over 50 women were raped in Fizi when rogue elements of the national army looted the town after the population lynched one of their colleagues – who had shot someone. In the media and amongst humanitarians the headline has been rape, whereas the looting, beating and flight of 20,000 people from the town, have been little reported (BBC report this morning started looking more widely http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-12205969)

    I suspect there has been collusion between Media, Humanitarians, donors and Governments in privileging of Sexual Violence over other stories– an outrageous story, funding and a palliative response. We all need to change this.

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