Understanding Peacekeeper Sexual Violence

Why do soldiers rape? When footage of peacekeepers from MINUSTAH, the UN mission in Haiti, gang-raping an 18-year old boy surfaced earlier this month, that question resurfaced with it. Official declarations have predictably stressed how unfortunate it is that the actions of ‘a few’ should taint the efforts of ‘the many’, although 108 Sri Lankan peacekeepers were expelled from Haiti for sexual exploitation in 2007, and another Uruguayan soldier was recently discharged for sexual relations with a Haitian minor. Certainly, patterns of similar abuse are not restricted to the Haitian mission. One of the more disturbing points in my brief fieldwork in the Democratic Republic of Congo was when an international human rights official told me, with an almost confessional seriousness, that they had feared more for their sexual integrity while travelling with UN peacekeepers than when interviewing Congolese soldiers.

When discussing rapacious African warriors, it is common to interpret sexual violence as part of a drive to accumulate resources or as the reflection of communal hatred in war. Peacekeeper sexual violence constitutes something of a control case in such debates, since it is much harder to link rape to these dynamics. There is no genocidal project for which peacekeepers are the foot soldiers, and they cannot really be said to be frustrated by poor pay and conditions. Certainly there have been links between sexual exploitation by UN peacekeepers and a kind of trade, although in the opposite direction than usually posited. In the case of UN missions, it has been peacekeepers who have exchanged goods for sex with locals, rather than using rape as a means of accessing additional resources for themselves (although they have also been implicated in other criminal networks for financial gain). Peacekeeper practices of sexual abuse are thus closer to sex trafficking and prostitution on a continuum of gendered exploitation than to models of rape as a tool of terror to facilitate resource capture.

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How Much Rape Is There In The Congo (DRC)? And How Does It Matter?

Dominique Strauss-Kahn has been accused of a sex crime. After a week of free gossip about sordid secrets concealed by superinjunctions, and in the wake of the Assange controversy, the combination of a high profile financier-cum-left-winger with the whiff of sexualised domination has proved sufficient to displace attention from the Democratic Republic of Congo, which had earned a spike in coverage from a new report on the extent of sexual violence there.

The numbers are appropriately horrifying. Although I can’t access the full American Journal of Public Health paper from my usual entry points (itself frustrating: why lock up your vital statistical research behind a paywall while the media is reporting on it far and wide?), the abstract suggests the following: based on a representative household survey of 3,345 female informants from a 2007 survey added to some population estimates, it is suggested that some 1.7-1.8 million women in Congo have been raped during their lifetimes, and that between 407,000-434,000 (to the nearest thousand) of those have been raped in the last 12 months. A total of 3.1-3.4 million women are estimated to have been victims/survivors of ‘intimate partner sexual violence’, which I assume means not raped by strangers or officially ‘enemy’ soldiers.

Jason Stearns provides some useful context to argue that these numbers are not surprising given previous surveys, if somewhat more solid in methodological terms. The UN has been calling the DRC ‘the rape capital of the world’ for some time now, and there are a significant number of organisations working on these issues in situ. Indeed, the sheer scale of attention to rape in the DRC is spoken of as a logistical problem among those working there. While conducting fieldwork in Goma last year, I spoke to a UNOCHA representative who put their figures (which were not comprehensive) for agencies working on sexual violence in Eastern DRC at 80 international NGOs and over 200 local NGOs, as well as multiple elements of the UN system itself. Properly coordinating work between such a mass of groups (with wildly varying levels of skill and funding) in situations of violence and funding uncertainty is as difficult as you might expect.

This gestures towards one of a number of complexities and problems in the analysis and politics of wartime sexual violence.

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