Are rape statistics in the Congo being inflated to increase aid?

A new article in Foreign Policy claims one Congolese village over-reported rape in order to secure more foreign aid. Its author says international focus on sexual violence has diverted attention from the country's underlying problems. 

Schalk van Zuydam/AP
A woman reacts as she carries food stuff at the village of Walikale, Congo, Thursday, Sept. 16, 2010. According to aid workers, crimes like rape have been used as a brutal weapon of war in Congo, where conflicts based on tribal lines have spawned dozens of armed groups amid back-to-back civil wars over many years.

A version of this post first appeared on the author's blog, A View From the Cave. The views expressed are the author's own.

What really happened in a village near Luvungi, Congo in August 2010?

At least 200 fighters from the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) and the Mai Mai Sheka militia group looted homes, committed rapes and abducted hundreds. 387 people (300 women, 23 men, 55 girls and 9 boys) were systematically raped over the course of four days by rebels, according to the International Medial Corps (IMC) and the United Nations.

But an article in Foreign Policy this week by Laura Heaton, a freelance reporter and consultant for the Enough Project, a genocide prevention NGO, says that the figures were exaggerated. She uses the attack as an example of how an extraordinary amount of attention and resources are diverted to the problem of rape in the Congo while issues like displacement garner much less attention and financial support.

She visited the area after the attacks and interviewed a few women about their experiences. In those discussions, Ms. Heaton and her colleague felt that they were being lied to by the women.

When the interviews were over and we were out of earshot, my colleague and I stood in confused silence. I had interviewed survivors of rape in eastern Congo before; a psychological element seemed to be missing in these interactions. Before I managed to articulate the uncomfortable feeling that we had just been lied to, my Congolese colleague spit it out: “Those women have been coached.” 

Her doubts were confirmed by a healthcare provider from the nearest hospital, one run by the state run with support from the IMC. He told her, behind closed door, that he only treated six victims between July 30 and Aug. 2, 2010. He claimed that every woman that was treated during that period was recorded as a victim of sexual violence regardless of the ailment and leveled an accusation that the patient logs were revised to increase the victim numbers.

Heaton suggests that the attention on rape in the Congo and the aid flows that go towards the problem have created a "perverse incentive structure."

No one suggests that giving millions of dollars to help this vulnerable, traumatized population isn’t warranted. But many aid workers quietly say the strong focus on sexual violence, over all other issues and crimes, has created a perverse incentive structure. Simply put, organizations know that their programs are more likely to be funded if their beneficiaries are victims of sexual violence — and women know that they will have a better chance of accessing medical care, school fees, microcredit, and housing if they report being a sexual-violence survivor.

Heaton’s article was met with resistance from Micah Williams and Will Cragin of the IMC, who responded in their own article for Foreign Policy. Mr. Cragin was in fact the coordinator for Congo's North Kivu province for the IMC at the time of the attacks in 2010. They disagree with Heaton’s claims regarding the number of rape victims, saying that all of the humanitarian organizations that investigated in the wake of the event found evidence that hundreds of rapes were committed.

This weight of evidence is not counterbalanced by the suspicions of one anonymous health worker whom Heaton interviewed, nor by her own inexpert and offensive suggestion that a “psychological element seemed to be missing” in the three survivors she encountered. Sadly, the author missed an opportunity to really explore what happened in Luvungi — and the truth about rape in Congo — when she chose to disregard available information (including information provided by both of us) that wasn’t compatible with a premise she was determined to pursue.

Women continued to come forward weeks after the attacks, say Mr. Williams and Cragin. Further, there were no incentives to come forward in terms of money or goods. In fact, the IMC was admittedly underprepared to respond to such a case and ran short on supplies. The lessons learned from the incident point towards greater care in being prepared. They conclude by saying that their experience working in the Congo shows the need for more attention on sexual violence, not less.

Sexual violence remains a salient feature of the conflict in the eastern Congo. Some may be of the opinion that this is a tired story, or one that has been exaggerated. From our experience working with survivors and communities, we contend that the issue of sexual violence in DRC deserves increased attention and action. And we believe that in any debate over rape in eastern DRC, Congolese women and girls who have been most affected deserve the final say on truth.

The conversation continued with an interview between Heaton and researcher Jason Stearns (who has also written about eastern Congo in the past for Africa Monitor). Mr. Stearns asked Heaton about her reporting and her reaction to the IMC response on his blog. Heaton told Stearns:

But in short, what was striking as I started looking into the incident was that all of the international groups that reported on Luvungi took IMC’s account as a given and wrote their reports from there; no one questioned, at least publicly, whether IMC had gotten the original story right, even though IMC readily admits that they weren’t attempting to confirm cases included in their count.

She says she was prepared for the controversy and push-back from the article, but felt confident in her reporting because of the fact that she was afforded the ability to conduct it slowly and carefully. She admitted to Stearns the role that instinct played in the story, but that her further research confirmed those feelings.

There’s no question that sexual violence is a huge problem in Congo. Through this research I was struck by how little focus is being devoted to the underlying causes of sexual violence and in particular, the very troubling role civilians play in perpetrating the majority of attacks. And while this is openly discussed in eastern Congo, for some reason it’s a reality that many Western donors and NGOs are less interested in tackling — or even acknowledging. But doing so, in part through prompting from journalists, seems like an important starting point for actually ending the problem.

The disagreement over the numbers goes to show that investigating events like the mass-rape in Luvungi warrant very careful attention, says analyst Kate Cronin-Furman.

“The policy prescriptions indicated by these competing interpretations of evidence are starkly different: less focus on sexual violence initiatives or more. Reason enough to be careful about what we think we know, and how we know it,” she writes at the blog Wronging Rights.

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