Sexual violence: painting with a finer tip

It’s astounding what a polarizing figure Nick Kristof is – as far as I can tell, many working on advocacy in the US, especially those trying to mobilize grassroots support, are very enthusiastic about Kristof. I remember meeting with people in Senator Feingold’s office several years ago and they were trying to lobby him to change his line on Darfur “as it was damaging our work in Congress.” (Unfortunately, I can’t remember the precise context, but just to show that he he’s got a big megaphone.) On the other hand, most of my colleagues and friends in the field can’t seem to stand his simplistic approach towards the issues. (See here and here for criticism of Kristof’s naming of rape victims in a recent blog.)

Maybe he has begun to listen a bit to his critics. Let’s take his most recent Op-Ed, “The Grotesque Vocabulary in Congo.” He starts with a typical tactic: shocking the reader. He says that some militiamen in the Congo force their victims to eat their own flesh, and that many women are raped again and again and again. This is true – these phenomena unfortunately do exist, although I find the constant resorting to barbarism to get attention pretty tawdry. Does he ask why? Does he try to bring a finer point rather than his usual oven mitt finger-painting?

Kind of. Perhaps because of the many complaints he has received, he continues:

“It’s not just mindless savagery. Rather, after talking to survivors and perpetrators alike over the years, I’ve come to believe that the atrocities are calculated and strategic, serving two main purposes.

First, they terrorize populations and shatter traditional structures of authority.Second, they create cohesiveness among the misfit, often youthful soldiers typically employed by warlords. If commanders can get their troops to commit unspeakable atrocities, those soldiers are less likely ever to return to society.”Yes, absolutely. And we should give Kristof some credit for being a bit more nuanced than usual.
But rape is actually much more complex than even this. Some rape is indeed “calculated,” intended to socialize soldiers from diverse backgrounds into cohesive units; diplomats have suggested that in order to fuse ex-CNDP, ex-Mai-Mai and Congolese army soldiers together, commanders use trauma and profound transgression to create unit cohesion. Not radically different in quality from US drill sergeant’s yelling: chants—“This is my rifle; this is my gun [hand on crotch]/This is for fighting; this is for fun.” It is also true that some commanders use rape to terrorize populations so they don’t provide information to their enemies and so that they pay their taxes without resistance.But rape is not always such an obvious instrument. Studies of sexual violence elsewhere have shown that rape can develop out of a deeply chauvinistic culture bred amongst soldiers – just thinks of US soldiers’ rape of women in Okinawa, or even sexual abuse of minors by UN peacekeepers in the Congo. Rape in these cases is more opportunistic, a side-effect of military culture. It is a policy insofar as the commanders know about it and don’t punish it, but then again, commanders of some armed groups in the Kivus have a hard time maintaining discipline and command over their troops, so what appears to be policy is really institutional weakness. I have often heard stories of this kind of rape in the Kivus from ex-combatants and civilians alike. “We are deployed far away from our families,” one soldier told me. “When we need a woman, we take one, it’s what we have to do because we are men.”
Rape can also be fostered out of a culture of violence bred by bad relations with the local population. “Raia,” or civilian in Swahili, has become a derogatory slur for many soldiers. In insurgencies, soldiers are often deeply distrustful of the civilian population, as they are deeply paranoid of information being passed to the enemy by “traitors.” Mistrust is only deepened by the fact that few of these militias have independent sources of financing – they live on the backs of the locals, taxing them and stealing. This fosters small acts of disobedience and criticism by the civilians, which in turn further aggravates the soldiers. Much like the Nazis who were able to blame the Jews for their own obliteration, I have heard Mai-Mai say that the civilians got what they had coming.
The truth is that we don’t really know exactly which one of these many reasons is the main reason for rape – it is a likely a mixture of all of the above. “Sexual violence,” I heard recently, “is overdetermined. ” For sure.
Those who want to know more, Elisabeth Wood has done some interesting work on sexual violence, in particular asking why some armed groups rape and others don’t (Sri Lanka and Columbia being two countries where some groups do and other don’t). See here.
A few words to contextualize sexual violence in the Congo.

  • When the Soviet Army occupied Berlin between April and May, 1945, according to hospital records they raped between 95,000 and 130,000 women, 6 per cent of the women in the city.
  • During the Rape of Nanjing by Japanese troops, 20,000 to 80,000 Chinese women and girls were raped and then executed over a period of 8 weeks in 1937, that is 8 to 32 percent of the approximately 250,000 female civilians present in the city at the time of the takeover.
  • More than 200,000 “comfort women,” most Koreans, were recruited by force and deception by the Japanese army to work in brothels for their troops during World War II.
  • According to a European Union investigation, approximately 20,000 girls and women
    suffered rape in 1992 in Bosnia-Herzegovina alone, many of them while held in detention facilities of various types.