Are we focusing too much on sexual violence in the DRC?

There has been another flurry of opinion pieces this past week on sexual violence in the Congo. On CNN, John Prendergast and Sasha Lezhnev put none too fine a point on it: “Rape and murder, funded by cell phones,” was the title of their online piece. In the Washington Post, Mary Lou Hartman spoke about “The evil in Congo,” highlighting the 7,500 rapes against women documented by the UN in the first nine months of 2009.

Sexual violence has become the main prism through which grassroots campaigners in Europe and the United States see the violence in the Congo. It is a very effective way of portraying the situation, as its brings home in graphic and personal terms the brutality and immensity of the violence. The campaigners are morally and strategically justified in underscoring this epidemic and I have a lot of sympathy for these campaigns – after all, they have helped push for legislative action in Congress and get Secretary of State Clinton out to the eastern Congo to see the devastation for herself.

But I am concerned that it could be skewing the debate.

First, the danger is that it will lead some to say: “Voila the savage heart of darkness, this is how these people are. The horror, the horror,” and just turn away. This, actually, is a lesser fear. Yes, I viscerally feel that the way a lot of the media have depicted Congolese women is distasteful, producing a pornography of violence, trying to outdo each other with the most barbaric gang-rape scenario. This has produced something of a rape tourism in Bukavu and Goma, where the same women are interviewed over a dozen times by researchers and journalists about their rape. This makes them relive their trauma, and few of them see that anything has changed.

But still, if, as I said, this leads to concrete policy change, I – and I believe many of the rape survivors themselves – would swallow this indignation for the greater good.

The second fear is not so easy to dispel. It boils down to this: by using such a reductive approach, do we end up with good policy? Campaigners have equated buying cell phones to encouraging rape in the DRC, for example, or UN support for Kimia II military operations as resulting in rape. The minerals supply chain is complex – a very small percentage of the minerals used for conductors in cell phones comes from the DRC, and it is far from obvious how companies are supposed to distinguish between “conflict” and “non-conflict” minerals (I have blogged about this ad nauseum here and here and here.) The UN operations have done a very poor job of negotiating strong conditionalities in return for the support of Congolese military operations, but if they do not participate in these operations they stand an even worse chance of preventing abuses against civilians.

In other words, focusing on rape has been very successful at producing outrage, what do we do with this? The causes of the conflict are complex, and if wield policy like a bull in a China shop, we will break things. If we start with wrong premises, we may well end up with the wrong solutions. There is precedent for this. The Congolese are still bitter after similar sort of knee-jerk sympathy led the US to give blind backing to Rwanda in the wake of the genocide, not understanding the nuances of regional politics (i.e. that their 1998 invasion of the Congo was not just about self-protection).

Mahmood Mamdani, with whom I disagree on many points, did get it right when he criticized the broad brush approach some analysts had toward violence in Darfur:
Newspaper writing on Darfur has sketched a pornography of violence. It seems fascinated by and fixated on the gory details, describing the worst of the atrocities in gruesome detail and chronicling the rise in the number of them. The implication is that the motivation of the perpetrators lies in biology (‘race’) and, if not that, certainly in ‘culture’. This voyeuristic approach accompanies a moralistic discourse whose effect is both to obscure the politics of the violence and position the reader as a virtuous, not just a concerned observer.Journalism gives us a simple moral world, where a group of perpetrators face a group of victims, but where neither history nor motivation is thinkable because both are outside history and context. Even when newspapers highlight violence as a social phenomenon, they fail to understand the forces that shape the agency of the perpetrator. Instead, they look for a clear and uncomplicated moral that describes the victim as untainted and the perpetrator as simply evil. Where yesterday’s victims are today’s perpetrators, where victims have turned perpetrators, this attempt to find an African replay of the Holocaust not only does not work but also has perverse consequences.
Mamdani went on to argue that such a reductive approach had skewed policy towards Sudan in unproductive ways. I am not a Sudan expert to accurately judge that, but we do need to be wary that our indignation doesn’t get the better of us. Sexual violence stirs up strong emotions, as it should, and gets many involved in the policy debate, as it should. But this kind of activism could push policy in the wrong direction if we don’t watch out. Hillary Clinton’s reaction to the rape crisis has been to send more money to NGOs in the eastern DRC; she even advocated sending video cameras for victims to film the rapists (for a good critique of this, see Wronging Rights here). This will obviously not solve the rape crisis.

In sum, I do not think that we are focusing too much on sexual violence, as some of my fellow political analysts in NGOs and the UN seem to think. However, I do think it is crucial to uphold high standards of journalistic and analytic detail when portraying the causes of violence and possible solutions, otherwise we will be on the wrong track.