Painting by Cheri Samba

Lokuta eyaka na ascenseur, kasi vérité eyei na escalier mpe ekomi. Lies come up in the elevator; the truth takes the stairs but gets here eventually. - Koffi Olomide

Ésthetique eboma vélo. Aesthetics will kill a bicycle. - Felix Wazekwa

Monday, December 14, 2009

Are we focusing too much on sexual violence in the DRC?

There has been another flurry of opinion pieces this past week on sexual violence in the Congo. On CNN, John Prendergast and Sasha Lezhnev put none too fine a point on it: "Rape and murder, funded by cell phones," was the title of their online piece. In the Washington Post, Mary Lou Hartman spoke about "The evil in Congo," highlighting the 7,500 rapes against women documented by the UN in the first nine months of 2009.

Sexual violence has become the main prism through which grassroots campaigners in Europe and the United States see the violence in the Congo. It is a very effective way of portraying the situation, as its brings home in graphic and personal terms the brutality and immensity of the violence. The campaigners are morally and strategically justified in underscoring this epidemic and I have a lot of sympathy for these campaigns - after all, they have helped push for legislative action in Congress and get Secretary of State Clinton out to the eastern Congo to see the devastation for herself.

But I am concerned that it could be skewing the debate.

First, the danger is that it will lead some to say: "Voila the savage heart of darkness, this is how these people are. The horror, the horror," and just turn away. This, actually, is a lesser fear. Yes, I viscerally feel that the way a lot of the media have depicted Congolese women is distasteful, producing a pornography of violence, trying to outdo each other with the most barbaric gang-rape scenario. This has produced something of a rape tourism in Bukavu and Goma, where the same women are interviewed over a dozen times by researchers and journalists about their rape. This makes them relive their trauma, and few of them see that anything has changed.

But still, if, as I said, this leads to concrete policy change, I - and I believe many of the rape survivors themselves - would swallow this indignation for the greater good.

The second fear is not so easy to dispel. It boils down to this: by using such a reductive approach, do we end up with good policy? Campaigners have equated buying cell phones to encouraging rape in the DRC, for example, or UN support for Kimia II military operations as resulting in rape. The minerals supply chain is complex - a very small percentage of the minerals used for conductors in cell phones comes from the DRC, and it is far from obvious how companies are supposed to distinguish between "conflict" and "non-conflict" minerals (I have blogged about this ad nauseum here and here and here.) The UN operations have done a very poor job of negotiating strong conditionalities in return for the support of Congolese military operations, but if they do not participate in these operations they stand an even worse chance of preventing abuses against civilians.

In other words, focusing on rape has been very successful at producing outrage, what do we do with this? The causes of the conflict are complex, and if wield policy like a bull in a China shop, we will break things. If we start with wrong premises, we may well end up with the wrong solutions. There is precedent for this. The Congolese are still bitter after similar sort of knee-jerk sympathy led the US to give blind backing to Rwanda in the wake of the genocide, not understanding the nuances of regional politics (i.e. that their 1998 invasion of the Congo was not just about self-protection).

Mahmood Mamdani, with whom I disagree on many points, did get it right when he criticized the broad brush approach some analysts had toward violence in Darfur:

Newspaper writing on Darfur has sketched a pornography of violence. It seems fascinated by and fixated on the gory details, describing the worst of the atrocities in gruesome detail and chronicling the rise in the number of them. The implication is that the motivation of the perpetrators lies in biology (‘race’) and, if not that, certainly in ‘culture’. This voyeuristic approach accompanies a moralistic discourse whose effect is both to obscure the politics of the violence and position the reader as a virtuous, not just a concerned observer.

Journalism gives us a simple moral world, where a group of perpetrators face a group of victims, but where neither history nor motivation is thinkable because both are outside history and context. Even when newspapers highlight violence as a social phenomenon, they fail to understand the forces that shape the agency of the perpetrator. Instead, they look for a clear and uncomplicated moral that describes the victim as untainted and the perpetrator as simply evil. Where yesterday’s victims are today’s perpetrators, where victims have turned perpetrators, this attempt to find an African replay of the Holocaust not only does not work but also has perverse consequences.

Mamdani went on to argue that such a reductive approach had skewed policy towards Sudan in unproductive ways. I am not a Sudan expert to accurately judge that, but we do need to be wary that our indignation doesn't get the better of us. Sexual violence stirs up strong emotions, as it should, and gets many involved in the policy debate, as it should. But this kind of activism could push policy in the wrong direction if we don't watch out. Hillary Clinton's reaction to the rape crisis has been to send more money to NGOs in the eastern DRC; she even advocated sending video cameras for victims to film the rapists (for a good critique of this, see Wronging Rights here). This will obviously not solve the rape crisis.

In sum, I do not think that we are focusing too much on sexual violence, as some of my fellow political analysts in NGOs and the UN seem to think. However, I do think it is crucial to uphold high standards of journalistic and analytic detail when portraying the causes of violence and possible solutions, otherwise we will be on the wrong track.


Julie said...

It depends how sexual violence is portrayed: if it is voyeurism or legitimate indignation leading to policy change recommendations. After all, sexual violence points at the broader problem of impunity and corruption, and it is yet to be taken into consideration in Western capitals by people who could put some pressure on the Congolese political elites. Sexual violence is a mean, not an end, to involve people hence policy makers in trying to find a way out of of all this. One of the big obstacles to this involvement is the complexity of the Congolese case, and that's why it is important, if we don't want it to be forgotten, to make it "readable" for non-specialists, otherwise they will just turn their head. And let's not forget that, even if in DRC expats are fed up w/ sexual violence (altough the people who work directly on it are very happy to say what they see and to see people wanting to relay the suffering they witness), in Europe we hear about it every 6 months. So some noise is definitely needed, even if it should be tied up, absolutely, to clear policy changes, the problem of impunity, corruption and the broad issue of the women condition in Congo.

Andrew said...

The answer to the title is clearly... NO. When you see the lenght and level of the violence, the sadism deployed and the number of victims. You talk about "most barbaric scenarios" "pornography of violence", but it is not the media who is inventing it, it IS like that, alas, whether you want it or not. Sometimes even worse because the media usually fail to mention the sadism and cynicism of the soldiers (and commanders). Sorry you prefer to close your eyes on this most awful consequence of this conflict but don't undermine the work of others by saying they're doing some "rape tourism", even if it is fashionable to put oneself above the others. Victims still need the world to know, and, frankly they are numerous enough coming everyday to Goma so that they re not interviewed twice. Anyway, sorry for the rant, but such an article is premature, when you see the ongoing violence there and the ongoing apathy of the international community. It is a luxury that past, present, and future sexual violence victims in Eastern Congo cannot afford.

Jason Stearns said...

You will notice that my posting was phrased as a question, not as an endorsement of a position. Obviously, attention urgently needs to be brought to the issue. The question is - does the way in which attention is brought to the issue affect the kind of policy that results? I think so.

Andrew said...

Then the title-question of your posting should be "Is the issue of sexual violence in DRC brought up the right way?" or something like that, cause as it is your posting is ambiguous and could mislead quick-readers. And I am sure there are some western policy makers in the lot, hence my comment to try and avoid any collateral damages you wouldn't want.

James said...

Jason is right. I think there is a study that just came out: show a picture of a poor hungry young girl in America or elsewhere, people will be shocked and try to help. But show another of a hungry small girl, whose parents were massacred and raped in a war in Darfur, Sri Lanka or South America, people lose interest. There are multiple hypotheses, one being that people appear to find suffering in wars expected.

Regarding Congo, my issue is this: why always try to address the symptoms, instead of uprooting the cause?
We know the root cause of the problem: the political situation in Rwanda. I believe Human Rights Watch, with its latest report,
is on the right track.
All these talks and talks at the UN and billions of dollars spent on MONUC do not target the real culprit: we have pampered the Rwandan dictator too much at the expense of the Congolese and Rwandan people. The latest UN Expert Report is a clear example of what is wrong with the UN right now. Jason needs to go back to the UN, infuse his objectivity, and ask tough questions on Kagame's involvement in the rapes of the Congolese and the Hutu refugees.
I hope US Congress will tackle that side of the problem: Rwandan government

LK said...

With nearly 7,000 cases of sexual violence reported in the first half of 2009 in the Kivus i don't think the attention being placed on sexual violence in DRC is anywhere near 'too much'. While i agree with you Jason, it's terribly important to ensure the media is not getting carried away with the wrong images, I also think the attention sexual violence is receiving is gravely needed. As the latest HRW report recommends, the UN Security Council has a role to play in protecting civilians and the establishment of such an expert group on civlian protection may not be such a bad idea...

Dino said...

Jason is right.

Hillary Clinton's call to provide women a cell phone (made with rape induced coltan?...) to take pictures of the perpetrators of these crimes is one of the most ridiculous things I have ever heard of. And yet coming from the mouth of the Secretary of State of the US government, this becomes a serious misperception and an example of how bad policy and bad thinking has filtered into high level efforts to solve the rape crisis in the DRC. Has anyone stopped to consider that the US is also training Congolese forces, yes the same ones that the UN are supporting in military operations that have resulted in widescale human rights abuses? Why is it only the UN that is being bashed?

Is anyone also considering the fact that in order to solve the rape crisis, badly paid soldiers in the DRC army would have to be barracked, nourished and disciplined within the framework of a functioning army. How can this happen if member states of the UN (including the P5 of the Security Council) are supplying military equipment and training in disproportional amounts to the needs of the DRC army. What the DRC army needs is tin roofing, mosquito nets and two full meals a day, and not tank carriers and flame throwers (which are being sold in return to leverage diplomatic clout with Kinshasa for the purposes of protecting vested interests... the perennial problem with the DRC). That would be a good start towards persuading grumpy soldiers to stay in the barracks in the evening instead of going out on the (pillaged) drink and ending up raping women and abusing other civilians.

I dont see a problem if journalists want to horrify their readers about the gravity of the sexual violence epidemic in the DRC, but for God's sake, can we start widening the debate a bit. Otherwise it does have a tendency of horrifying readers without giving them the benefit of journalistic insight into the root causes of the sexual violence phenomenon.

The Congolese are not rapists by nature.

They have been raped for 400 years.

Ingrid said...

Jason is right. I do not think there is too much focus, but a biased or, at best, incomplete focus. Most media coverage of sexual violence in the DRC seems mainly to stir emotion and cause outrage and hardly to enable listeners, viewers and readers to understand why this happens. And among the consumers of this coverage are policy makers, many of whom, partly as a result, seem to be at loss for good solutions. There is little coverage that seeks to grasp the specific reasons why sexual violence of this kind occurs in this particular area at this particular juncture, and how the phenomenon has evolved over time.

The problem is that if the media only shocks us without enabling us to understand more fully why this happens, that might trigger a wish to help, but few clues as to what help will work. Yet moral indignation is not likely to help produce tangible improvements unless it is combined with a thorough understanding of causes. Though the brutality of this violence indeed is repulsive, that should not deter us from trying to see the complex reasons why it happens. Only on the basis of such a fuller understanding can more effective policy responses be identified.

Rachel said...

Facinating discussion. I really appriciate your blog. Thanks.

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