“Culture” Cop-Out Won’t Stop Rape in Eastern Congo

The brutal war in eastern Congo has become synonymous with rape as a military tactic. Sensationalism combines with subrosa racism to dull the international response.

By Michelle Chen Jul 13, 2010

Many in Africa hoped that World Cup fanfare would wash away some of the disturbing images that generally dominate the Western press coverage of African nations. Now that the glow is fading, how will the world treat the crisis in DR Congo, which has historically been either ignored or chronically misunderstood?

The brutal war in eastern Congo has become synonymous with rape as a military tactic. But while the problem is real, sensationalism combined with subrosa racism have created a swirl of fictions that dull the international response.

Lisa Shannon argues in the International Herald Tribune that as long as people in rich nations view rape as culturally entrenched in Congolese society, we blind ourselves to our collective responsibility:

When we blame all Congolese men for sexual violence, not only do we imply that rape is inherent to the African landscape, we avoid critical questions, particularly regarding the role that we in the West play

Who has been silent during 12 years of mass rape and off-the-charts atrocities? We have.

Who funds the bloodshed with our hunger for the latest computer processor and smart phone produced with minerals from Congo? We do. Perhaps unwittingly, but we do.

Who helped the fighters get their guns? We did. …

When we label rape in Congo "cultural," we let ourselves off the hook. And that is a cultural issue. Ours.

The abuses committed by international forces counter the rape-culture myth even more directly. Not long ago, the United Nations acknowledged that its own troops–far from "keeping the peace–have actually contributed to the climate of lawlessness driving sexual violence, and in many cases, they engaged in sexual misconduct themselves.

The Congolese government stirred controversy with a recent request that the U.N. begin drawing down its troops and shifting toward civilian missions despite the ongoing carnage. But Annie Rashidi-Mulumba at the Daily Beast challenged the assumption that international forces were Congo’s last hope:

Given this background, it may be that my government is analyzing the UN presence in these terms: A multi-million dollar UN-peace keeping operation has been in Congo for 10 years with more than 22,000 officers. How can it be that the number of civilians dying and in extreme need is still rising? How come Congo is home to the worst humanitarian crisis in the world since the Second World War

Clearly, the United Nations peacekeeping force is not effective. A change is needed.

There is urgent need to focus on the protection of civilians by fighting Congo’s culture of impunity toward law-breaking. There should be absolutely no tolerance for those responsible for sex crimes….

At the most basic level, we need to restore Congo by investing in the country’s civilians, not just its army. Proceeds from mining should fund social projects such as schools and hospitals.

Netfa Freeman at Black Agenda Report draws a straight line between Africa’s colonial legacy and the political distortion of the current crisis:

Only the deliberately blind among social justice advocates can fail to see the connection between the present state of Africa in general and Congo in particular versus imperialism on the other side. There are those, however, who claim to work on behalf of the interests of Africa and her people, claim to work for the interests of Congolese but who insist on embracing an approach out of sync with the lessons of history and out of sync with the current exigencies of Africa and her children, scattered and suffering throughout the world.

Human rights activists have joined an international campaign against the trafficking of conflict minerals, which help finance the warfare of the DRC’s various armed groups. The effort, like the Save Darfur campaign, follows the consumer-oriented humanitarian vogue that has made waves in the American media. The website does provide background information on sexual violence that emphasizes structural factors, such as poverty, lack of health care and the chaos bred by military conflict as the root causes, along with "gender inequality and culture barriers."

Such initiatives might raise public awareness and spur political action. But it remains to be seen whether the messaging around the war in eastern Congo can compel people to recognize sexual violence not as an indigenous scourge of a failed state, but a byproduct of globalized ignorance.