How not to study sexualized violence in the DRC

“Soldiers and militiamen have raped women around Bukavu.” New York Times

Judging by the volumes of media productions and the increasing attention devoted to the topic by various organizations, interest in and awareness of sexualized violence that rages armed conflicts have amplified these past few years. The narrative of sexualized violence has also evolved. At first, ‘rape as a weapon of war’ used to dominate popular understandings of sexualized violence in conflict. That was later criticized for being reductionist in emphasizing the assumed psychological strategy of humiliating the enemy. Understanding rapes that occur in war zones as exclusively underpinned by a particular combatant motive now seems to offer little. However, thanks to many studies and reports, we know that armed conflicts alter and intensify a society’s patterns of rape. The civil wars in Spain and Sri Lanka, Second World War Japan, Afghanistan, Iraq, the former Yugoslavia, Nazi Germany: the list goes on and on and on….

Despite the overabundance of examples, many today associate wartime rape primarily or exclusively with the DRC. Depending on international media to shape our grasp of worldwide human rights violations, many of us have learned to identify wartime sexualized violence with women in the DRC’s North Kivu region.

Two women who played a major role in bringing the systematic rape of Congolese women by soldiers into the world’s conscience are the former U.S Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who pushed the topic on the US’s foreign policy agenda in 2009, and Margaret Wallström, who, during her term as the UN’s Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict, coined the now famous term ‘Rape Capital of the World’ in reference to the DRC in April 2010. Former UN Special Envoy and current co-director of AIDS-Free World Stephen Lewis also argued that “there is no precedent for the intense brutality of the war on women in Congo” and that “the world has never dealt with such a twisted and blistering phenomenon”.

War, sadistic gang rape, vicious killing, violence deserve prioritization across the social, political and legislative agendas. Two spaces in which these issues are focused on are development and postgraduate gender and development programs, both of which are largely occupied by those privileged with access to universities, travel grants, research positions, international development jobs. In reality, we’re talking about white middle-class European and American women with a strong sense of idealism and a soft spot for difference and `the other’. Not surprisingly, when the realities of sexualized rape in eastern DRC began to emerge, more than a few were drawn to the topic.

In a world where violations of women’s rights continue to be marginalized, normalized and invisibilized, demanding attention for the brutalities women face is a good thing. After all, it takes exposure, shock, outrage, solidarity and a sense of urgency to mobilize resources and political will to investigate the crisis and take action. However, when one particular group of Western women comes to study and define the `truth’ of a less privileged group of `other’ women, how does their positionality and their inevitably chalenged grasp of context `on the ground’ affect the subject women, the women are being studied, `empowered’, `supported

In what ways ways is their interest connected to the longstanding colonial fascination with subaltern brutalities and Black rapists? Such questions might seem like a futile, even galling exercise in the face of the high rape estimates and the urgency with which the crisis must be addressed. Surely the fear for racially stereotyping certain groups by researching their perpetration shouldn’t lead to a neglect of massive human suffering? That’s right; it shouldn’t.

However, not all research carried out is actually helpful or constructive in reducing the violence, as Marsha Henry, points out, in her piece, `Ten Reasons not To Write your Masters Dissertation on Sexual Violence in War’: “Here’s another important reason not to write a dissertation on sexual violence as a weapon of war in the DRC. It’s been done already! Students continually ask me ‘can you suggest a couple of books on the subject?’. Where to start? There is so much to be said about gender and violence in militarised contexts more generally, but there has also been a great deal written about by a number of scholars. And it is precisely this body of knowledge that has sometimes been misanalysed by students. That is, although much of this writing has politically exposed the issue, students often read it as a holistic canon on the subject, interpreting the text as they wish. Dissertations often become regurgitated and simplistic snapshots of other work, reinforcing particular perspectives and portrayals and therefore contributing to the reification of the subject (missing a cogent assessment of narrative forms). A rhetorical stasis is created, where certain material and citations are circulated and re-circulated, with little new insight or critical perspective provided”.

One explanation for the disproportionately large interest in the DRC, compared to other conflicts, is the horror at the brutalities women have faced. If indeed this horror plays a key role in igniting students’ interest, how does that shape the findings and value of the final work? According to Henry, it does so in a troubling way: “Honing in on the bodily experience of rape, for example, can remove rape in war from the wider social, cultural, economic and political context in which it always takes place. It can be an abstraction of the total experience. The affective impact is that readers of these dissertations distance themselves from subjects in the studies”.

Is the topic compelling because of the opportunity to contribute towards understanding and ending the violence? At what point is this opportunity compromised by sensationalizing thick descriptions? If this type of research adds neither value nor insight, what might be its negative effects? For example, imagine a future generation of students googling ‘rape and war in the early 2000s’ and being bombarded by references to the DRC, while reading little about all the other conflicts where similar violence occurred. Wouldn’t that tell them rape-and-war was unique to the DRC? To Africa? Wouldn’t that particular type of disproportional interest inevitably lead to a distorted, and racist, version of the truth? The point is not for students to ignore the topic, but to critically check the roots, aim and fruitfulness of its appeal and to consider the effects it may have.


(Image Credit: The New York Times)