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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The Patriarchal Dividend At War

Thursday’s Masculinity/Violence Symposium was lovely, thanks for asking. Lots of people came, which was heartening, and they all had great stuff to say, which was exciting. It bodes well for the International Feminist Journal of Politics special issue (*hint*). Here’s more or less what I said on the day, incorporating a splash of revisions and a dollop of answers and critiques provided by the audience. The day itself deserves some kind of report of its own, and I hope to make some time for it, or perhaps just extract some highlights from the papers presented.

Being part of something potent and comprehensible amid chaos, witnessing death and destruction as a participant and testing yourself in the masculine ritual of war remain elemental to the formation of soldierly identity. To tour as a soldier is to become a male exemplar, to take the chance of looking upon horror from the inside, to attempt to neutralize its voyeuristic allure through becoming its agent…The performance of soldiering is plastic and infinitely variable, shifting through the cautious cadences of the defense phase to the aggressive, rolling bounds of the ‘advance to contact’, always to end in ‘the fight-through’. ‘Fighting-through’ is the end of the dance, the culmination point where the dancers become the dance, where the fighting body achieves a sensuous unity with grenades, bullets and the bayonet.

Shane Brighton, ‘The Embodiment of War: Reflections on the Tour of Duty’ (2004)

War is not simply a breakdown in a particular system, but a way of creating an alternative system of profit, power and even protection.

David Keen, The Economic Functions of Violence in Civil Wars (1998)

From prehistoric times to the present, I believe, rape has played a critical function. It is nothing more or less than a conscious process of intimidation by which all men keep all women in a state of fear.

Susan Brownmiller, Against Our Will: Men, Women & Rape (1975)

Conceptualising masculinity in terms of relations of hegemony and subordination and marginalisation and authorisation, Raewyn Connell proposed that men receive rewards as participants in male gender orders, and that this takes the form of status, command and material assets. This is the patriarchal dividend. Inequality on the scale observable in contemporary societies is, in Connell’s words, “hard to imagine without violence”, which is taken to have an important enforcement role both in terms of maintaining men’s power over women through acts like rape and in setting patterns among men. Extending this reasoning to the practice of war, it is plausible to see violence in general, and extreme acts like rape in particular, as an instrument of this enforcement, protecting or extending the patriarchal dividend. Soldiers in this sense become the frontline troops for the collective of men, just as domestic violence, street-level intimidation and rape fulfil the same functions outside of the war system.

Evidence from Chris Coulter’s work in Sierra Leone exemplifies how such a process may work. She reports that the majority of those abducted as ‘bush wives’ by the Rebel United Front (RUF) appear to have been raped. The creation of RUF rebel villages where commanders lived and the abducted were taken reflected the sociological structure of ‘peacetime’ arrangements: a pseudo-family structure with commanders at the head of a number of ‘bush wives’, subordinate males and occasionally elderly residents. The forms of labour assigned to women also followed the patriarchal imperatives of reproduction: fetching water and firewood, cleaning, and preparing food. Traditional roles like the ‘mamy queen’, who would look after young girls and prepare them for marriage, were also replicated within the camp structure. These arrangements were stable, to the extent that hierarchies among bush wives also manifested themselves, with the favoured wives of powerful commanders themselves taking on responsibilities for distributing arms and ammunition and holding power over other wives and children within camps.

In the context of masculinities, I take this kind of perspective to suggest that there are what we might call enforcer masculinities at work in war. This is to say that there are patterns of behaviour, representations and identities which, in the practice of violence, secure benefits for patriarchy as a system. A Debt Paid in Coin and Sweat.

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