In Africa, reporters face ethical questions when reporting on rape
In light of this week's sentencing of a Congolese military officer for sexual violence, correspondent Jina Moore discusses the many gray areas of reporting on rape in Africa.
But first, a quick news update: A Congolese colonel is going to jail for his sex crimes. It's the first such conviction – and about time. Two thousand people attended the verdict and sentencing, and 49 women had braved testifying against him in court, according to the BBC. I applaud you all.Skip to next paragraph
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If you're a regular reader, you've probably noticed by now that I write a lot about rape, in particular how journalists cover it. This surprises the me-of-five-years-ago. Then, I was in grad school with brilliant, fiery feminists who would have had a lot to say about this question if we'd ever had a class on it. I had virtually nothing to say about "that woman's issue," then... and sometimes felt like less of a woman (and certainly less of a feminist, if I even felt like that confusing f-word at all) because of my empty brain.
But in the intervening years, I've covered countries where you can't get away from rape -- or at least from its legacy. I spend a lot of time in post-conflict Africa, and in very nearly every country I've reported in, there's a local variation on the "rape as a weapon of war" story. I've found myself puzzling through awkward systems of journalism logic. In Sierra Leone, for a story about a new precedent in international humanitarian law, I talked for hours with women who were gang-raped, or once-raped, or raped by the same man with different objects, and any other variation you can imagine. I'd been told this topic was sensitive, even urged by well-meaning NGO folks not to ask about it. But as soon as I had the introduction out of my mouth -- "I'm a journalist writing about forced marriage during the war" – they interrupted me to start telling their stories. I was young, confused, overwhelmed, but slowly, I realized these were women who hadn't been heard before.
Meanwhile, my story was narrow. At some point in each interview – sometimes five minutes in, sometimes twenty, depending on the person and all kinds of verbals and non-verbals – I had to ask questions that subtly tried to uncover whether their stories were the ones I needed for my story. Were these women who fit the Special Court's new legalism "forced wives?" The precedent-setting case was all about how a forced marriage is a distinct crime, different from rape or sexual slavery, already defined (and sadly oft-used) in international law. I found myself thinking like a math teacher: All forced wives are raped, but not all rape victims are forced wives. It was an odd kind of consistency to have to maintain between the memories women wanted to share with me and the lens of the story. How do you tell a woman, "What you went through was horrible... but a different kind of horrible than I'm writing about?" (For the record, you don't. I think you just listen, as long as you can, and thank them.)
Later, in Rwanda, I interviewed a genocide survivor who told me about the weeks she spent hiding from the interahamwe, gangs of young genocidaires who did the brunt of the killing. She told me about how men beat her and those around her, killed her family, tore her clothes off and then cracked her own skull with a weapon, leaving her to die.
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