Will Congo's troubling rape statistics compel any change?

Although it is helpful to have reliable numbers on rape in the Democratic Republic of Congo, that doesn't change the fact that so far there's no answer on how to bring those numbers down.

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    Margot Wallstroem, Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict, attends a press conference at the United Nations European headquarters in Geneva on Sept. 27, 2010. Wallstroem shared with the human rights council her assessment of the mass rapes in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo and addressed the issue of sexual violence in conflict and rape as a tactic of war.
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Reacting to the new statistics boiled down to “four women raped every five minutes” in Congo, a few people questioned the accuracy of the findings, or suggested that “we don't need figures like this to know sexual violence is a problem.” Both responses may be true. But the press pick-up of the announcement of the American Journal of Public Health‘s findings proves its importance, at the very least, in redirecting attention to a persistent and particularly disturbing characteristic of the long conflict in eastern Congo.

The report’s authors provide the most comprehensive compilation of countrywide statistics to date on sexual violence by pulling together the findings of previous studies and then filling in gaps with results of the 2007 Demographic and Health Survey, conducted by the Congolese government with technical and financial assistance from USAID and Macro International.

The authors acknowledged the shortcomings of previous studies based primarily on health facility and police reports and sought to improve upon that methodology. Despite the new study’s thorough effort to generate the most accurate statistics, the particularly sensitive nature of sexual violence in Congo, where victims are often ostracized, poses inherent challenges; we’ll likely never know the true extent, quantitatively, of sexual violence across a country as vast as Congo.

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The statistics are a useful reference tool for journalists, aid organizations, and advocacy groups like Enough. But the unprecedented problem, both in scope and brutality, is widely acknowledged by now. Lack of awareness isn’t the issue any more. Despite the deployment of the world’s largest UN peacekeeping mission, visits from prominent officials and activists, and the presence of local and international NGOs seized with serving survivors and finding solutions on the ground, the problem persists.

Notably, the study adds to our understanding of who is perpetrating sexual violence, which is helpful in determining how to address it. There’s no question that rape is being used as a weapon of war in the East. But these findings also highlight the alarmingly high rate of sexual violence among married couples and intimate partners. It’s on this point that the authors offer a recommendation, while deferring to advocacy organizations for broader policy takeaways:

Taken together, our results suggest that future policies and programs should also strengthen their focus on abuse within families and eliminate the acceptance of and impunity surrounding sexual violence while maintaining and enhancing efforts to stop militias from perpetrating rape.

Reading reactions to the report, I was reminded of a conversation that continues to haunt me from my first trip to eastern Congo in 2007. Sitting with a camp manager from one of the teeming IDP camps near Goma, I asked what sort of psychosocial services were being provided in the camp for survivors of sexual violence. He had already demonstrated – in words and body language – how overwhelming challenges were in the camp of tens of thousands, many of whom had been displaced numerous times. He frowned when he heard the question. He said they weren’t providing services beyond referrals for women who needed medical care, because “sexual violence has become so prevalent that women don’t really know that a crime has been committed against them.” He said that with the day-to-day challenges people in the camp face – access to clean water and adequate food for a start – talking about rape and pointing out the abnormality of sexual violence could in fact traumatize women further. His perspective has stuck with me as a testament to the complexity of this crime that has come to define the eastern Congo conflict.

The looming question of why sexual violence is so prevalent has been the subject of years of academic research and subsequent books (which Foreign Policy’s Elizabeth Dickinson highlighted in her insightful post). The underpinnings of the problem – a brutal colonial history, impunity, ongoing conflict that has left communities desensitized to violence – deserves further investigation, discussion, and consideration in programming. But surprisingly absent from the debate over the statistics, why they’re so high, and what can be done about it, is the role of the Congolese government, even though its soldiers stand accused of being some of the chronic perpetrators.

Few news reports quoted Kinshasa’s reaction, and when government spokesman Lambert Mende did speak to the BBC, he tried to put a positive spin on the alarming statistics. The report is “evidence of the state becoming more and more efficient by dispatching judges, prosecutors, police all over the country." He added, “It is that, that allows people now to complain and to feed such reports."

The defensive tone struck in this quote demands just one response: So what are you going to do about it?

Laura Heaton blogs for the Enough Project at Enough Said.

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