Monday 1 July 2013

International discourse on sexual violence as security threat in Congo

Leila van Rinsum

The latest international uproar against sexual violence in DR Congo followed the publication of a UN report that found about 200 women and girls had been raped in November and December 2012 in South Kivu. A majority of the cases were perpetrated by the Congolese army (FARDC) ‘in a systematic manner and with extreme violence’ (UN News Centre 2013). Soldiers revealed that they had been ordered to commit these atrocities. Sadly this is but a fraction of rape, torture and other forms of sexual violence that terrorize Congolese women, children and men. Sadly also this is yet another headline in the international media that resembles many. There have been numerous reports and studies on sexual violence committed by rebels, militias, the Congolese army and civilians in Congo. Specific data is difficult to obtain and varies in the different studies partly because the majority of rape cases are not reported.

Nevertheless studies, reports and witness accounts paint a dark picture especially for women in Congo. A study published in the American Journal of Public Health estimated that 48 women are raped every hour in DRC (Adetunji 2011). Sexual violence in Congo targets babies and elderly, women and men alike, it includes gang rape, mutilations, forced prostitution and forced pregnancy. The situation in DR Congo poses a fundamental question: why has nothing changed for the people in Congo after over a decade of ‘grave sincerity’? This article proposes that the international discourse on sexual violence has been fairly limited and failed to address the underlying structural causes on the societal as well as on the global level.


Sexual violence gained concentrated international attention after the horrific narratives of mass rapes and genocides in Srebrenica, former Yugoslavia in 1992 and Rwanda in 1994 wracked the conscious of the ‘humanitarian’ international community that had miserably failed in both instances. Rape was thereafter declared as a war crime in the ICC statue and UN resolutions. Most notably the UN resolution 1820 of 2008 defined sexual violence as a ‘tactic of war to humiliate, dominate, instil fear in, disperse and/or forcibly relocate civilian members of a community or ethnic group’ (UN Security Council 2008:1). Sexual violence in the DR Congo gained international attention in the mid 1990s and there has indeed been salient discourse on the matter in the UN. Looking at published articles from the UN News centre in the last ten years, however, it is striking that the discourse has barely changed. From ‘DR of Congo: UNICEF envoy calls for an end to rape of women, children’ (UN News Centre 2003), ‘UN reports gross rights abuses in DR Congo, including systematic rape’ (UN News Centre 2004), ‘DR Congo: UN official decries sexual violence, urges stronger response’ (UN News Centre 2007) to ‘UN voices outrage at mass rape by rebels in eastern DR Congo’ (UN News Centre 2010). Also the recent rape attacks sparked international agony as the mass rape in Minova, South Kivu became public and FARDC Soldiers revealed that they were ‘ordered to rape’. (BBC 2013) UN officials have continuously been ‘appalled’, ‘shocked’, ‘outraged’, ‘alarmed’ and frequently ‘decried’ and ‘condemned’ sexual violence. There have indeed been successes, the UN has recognized rape as a security threat being ‘a weapon of war’ and ‘systematic’, the UN agency UN Action against sexual violence in Conflict was established and campaigns such as ‘Stop rape now’ or ‘UNiTE to End Violence Against Women’ were initiated. However, little has changed in Congo, and one reason for this is that the UN has not surpassed the ‘awareness stage’ in advocacy, or as Eve Ayiera (2010:11) puts it, UN discourse ‘seems to have become stuck on breaking the silence.’


Further the UN has given little attention to the underlying social structures and construction that enable sexual violence. Feminists have demonstrated how knowledge and relations are constructed in terms of binaries, e.g. ‘us’ versus ‘them’, male versus female, heterosexual versus homosexual, whereby the first category is considered superior. (Ayiera 2010, Shepherd 2010 Tickner 1992, 2004) Men are usually associated with being aggressive, assertive and rational whereas women are seen as passive, weak and emotional. Tickner further points out that all traits regarded as ‘masculine’ also present the common notions of ‘good statecraft’, hence security is defined in relation to this and usually regarded as male domain. These socially constructed ‘realities’ serve to justify the subordination of women as they are believed to lack agency and need to be ‘protected’ and thus maintain a heterosexual male dominated social order. ‘This problematic construction of gender and sex is the platform from which the international discussions and responses to sexual violence in conflict launch. The resulting conceptual framework affirms a patriarchal social order which normalizes the aggressive, heterosexual, dominant behaviour associated with masculinity and the subjugation of females.’ (Ayiera 2010:12) This ‘patriarchial social order’ in return serves to maintain unequal power relations in the private as well as the public. Despite that scholars argue that even the term ‘sexual’ violence is misleading as it reduces rape to a ‘crime about sex, undermining the inherent gender power, and hierarchy embedded in such acts’ (Parashar 2013).


As there has been little research within the UN on how gender influences the discourse on what constitutes a threat, who to securitize and the action to be taken as well as the professional relations in the organization, it is not surprising that little effort has been made to understand underlying social, economic and political systems in Congo that enable and fuel sexual violence. Rape is used to specifically target males - to shame and emasculate them - by raping ‘their’ women. The perpetrators demonstrate the enemy that they have failed to perform their gender roles in protecting the women, thus they weaken them and establish superiority. Even the impregnation of women serves the point of shaming the community and weakening their social systems. This on the one hand demonstrates the ideologies that objectify women; their bodies are owned by men who ‘use’ them strategically in war. It further reveals the feminization of sexual violence, which has led to a normalcy of rape of women. Of course men are raped, too, and particularly for the reason of ‘feminizing’ them which is considered shaming and subordinating. A male rape victim in Congo narrated on BBC radio, a soldier ‘took [him] as a woman’ in order to describe that he was raped. The feminization of sexual violence is directly related to societal gender norms that describe women as subordinate, sexual objects and weak which in return perpetuates sexual violence. Thus it is the social position women own in their societies that accounts for their disproportional suffering. ‘Rape is not the problem. Rape is a symptom of the problem. And the answer is not to attempt to stop men from raping women, but to categorically change women’s values and status in their communities’ (Abigal Disney cited in Merger 2012). A change of community values of course must be going hand in hand with direct action, above all ensuring sincerity in the prosecution of perpetrators. So part of the answer must still be to ‘stop men from raping women’ as impunity remains one of the biggest challenges. The point here is though that the existing unequal gendered power dynamics that are inherent in social, political and economic structures maintain women’s subjugation and thus normalize sexual violence which in return explains unwillingness to prosecute perpetrators. These structures and conceptualizations surface domestically as well as internationally, where they are apparent in the structures, discourses and responses of international organizations such as the UN.


Another problem that both causes and arises from the ignorance of social constructs enabling sexual violence, is that the issue is confined to periods (of war) rather than seen as intractable and part of societal structures in the international discourse. Consequently ‘[s]exual violence is made into an object of conflicting armed groups, rather than a subject of human relations,’ as Merger (2012) points out. She further asserts that the UN agenda is only concerned with sexual violence if it ‘can be considered comparable’ to classical methods of warfare. ‘If the sexual violence perpetrated cannot be directly and causally linked to the objective of the armed group or purpose of the conflict, it falls outside of the scope of UN consideration and response.’ (Merger 2012) Thus sexual violence becomes a security threat for the international community only if it is in relation to war which is seen as a disruption of the ‘normal’, it also assumes that conflict has a confined beginning and ending. Studies show that domestic rape perpetrated by civilians and in ‘peace zones’ is perpetual in Congo (Douma, Hilhorst 2012, Havard Humanitarian initiative 2009). There is no doubt that conflict generally destabilizes societies and their security and value systems as well as political structures as the rule of law, which leads to increased violence and impunity. In order to combat sexual violence, however, the focus must be on a broad understanding of underlying ‘unequal gender relations and dynamics that are far more pervasive than the specific instances of actual violence. (…) [M]ilitarism in the broadest sense reifies polarised gender relations and gender identities, and particular notions of masculinity and masculine prowess seem to be bound up with gender-based violence, which threatens women’s security.’ (Mama, Okazawa- Rey 2008:3) Additionally, international discourse and ‘bringing awareness’ draws on extreme rhetoric, highlighting the number of perpetrators and instances of ‘mass rape’ in war. While these horrific instances surely must be prevented, it belittles the horrors of rape in ‘everyday life’ and facilitates its normalization. Despite that, rebel groups have frequently used mass rape to draw attention to them for negotiating and bargaining; this was the case in August 2010 when commanders ordered the rape of about 387 women in Luvingi as a strategy to attract attention (Douma, Hilhorst 2012).


Another failure of international discourse and response is the increasing isolation of ‘women’s issues.’ The UN has invested intensively to create numerous agencies that deal specifically with women’s issues. While this is certainly a positive development that women’s needs have gained special attention and may indeed enhance visibility of central issues, the isolation by large facilitates neglect of the main issues that are inherent in the structure itself and suggests that women are not part of the same society. If a serious aim is to change gendered power relations and discourse to end sexual violence on women, then where are the women in decision making positions? Jane Ticker (1999:8) concluded that ‘associations of women with peace, idealism, and impracticality have long served to disempower women and keep them in their place, which is out of the ‘real world’ of international politics.’ Above that the isolation of women in international discourse by ‘the use of phrases such as ‘taking women’s views into account’ indicates an acceptance of women on the periphery mitigated by generous calls for opportunities to participate, not as equals where they can question the system, but to have their views included much as one would take into account the opinions of an external party.’ (Ayiera 2010:16) The isolation of women’s matters confines these to a limited scope of response; hence it is not surprising that sexual violence has rarely been included in peace agreements and negotiations. Additionally rape is often considered as a ‘female problem’ and addressed as reproductive health issue.


It has been examined that a critical gender analysis of power dynamics on the societal as well as global level has been absent and thus the agenda to end sexual violence has mostly failed. This is to large extent due to the feminization of rape and gender biases that intractably conform to heterosexual male power. There are, however, two more important variables – despite gender- that have pervasive influence on the discourse on sexual violence: race and poverty. In the same way as linguistic binaries regarding gender maintain oppressive power relations that subjugate women, dichotomies like civilized versus uncivilized, developed versus underdeveloped have been used in the international discourse to divide the world. ‘[T]he gendered and racial implications in them have direct consequences. By denoting inferiority of a certain gender or race, these dichotomies shape current understandings of gender [or race] in our society.’ (Sjoberg and Martin, pp.25) It is striking that the meanings Western societies (which are directing International discourse) give to ‘female’, ‘African’ and ‘poor’ are remarkably similar, because all of them connate inferiority. Poverty is associated with incapacitated, uneducated and victimized. This perception heavily influences Institutional agendas, and determine the value that is placed on an issue. Sexual violence is largely ignored as a security threat when it is associated with weakness, poverty etc. Jacqui True argues that ‘relatively poor access to economic social and political resources for women and men is associated with being both perpetrators and victims of violence.’ (cited in Parashar 2013) These concepts are important to analyse, because any securitization depends on discourse and underlying perceptions will determine prioritization, the urgency and nature of response. Congo as a developing country and Congolese women (and men) as ‘victims’ and ‘poor’ are not prioritized in the international community, and worse- violence against women in developing countries is often stereotyped as unavoidable side symptom of inferior cultures and failed states, rarely is the international system held accountable. Likewise information and knowledge dissemination as well as discourses are shaped by these same structures which in return determine the course of action taken and access to power. Knowledge in the global sphere is largely based on Western understanding of it, a common notion links knowledge to education and then to power or ‘decision making positions’. While numerous community based approaches have understood the importance of including the knowledge of the ‘affected’, the interpretation of the same is still reserved for the ‘educated’. Thus conscious and subconscious conceptualization will benefit what is white and male.


The recent report by the United Nations General Assembly Security Council (2013:9) explicitly links sexual violence with control over resources. It was found that ‘armed groups systematically targeted civilians to control areas rich in natural resources (as exemplified by the attacks in Epulu by Mai-Mai Morgan).’ This points to the fact that sexual violence is not merely societal, but clearly political and economic. So far the international discourse has published data on this, but failed to investigate the underlying social structures. Feminist scholars like True or Merger have analyzed the intersection of economics and sexual violence. The examination should however be broadened to include the impact of the global economy on the same. MNCs have notably played a vital role in the Congo conflict, by fueling and financing violence. Global inequalities and propagation of market liberalization by the international community, spearheaded by the IMF and WB, but in cooperation of the UN maintain a system that facilitates the scramble for Congo’s resources without regard for the individual life. There is an apparent link between these global economic inequalities the status of women and sexual violence. So far, however, the international agenda has strongly supported ‘democracy’ and ‘liberalism’ at the expense of economic oppression and inequality.


Sexual violence is an act of atrocity and a weapon of war; it is a means of domination and an outcome of oppressive power dynamics at the communal, national and global level. It is not confined to war and not the result of war. The slow pace of commitment towards fighting sexual violence and acknowledging the underlying causes, dynamics and interdependencies demonstrate the overall lack of democracy as well as inherent gender and race biases in the international discourse and the UN as an institution. While numerous studies and rhetorical gestures have been produced by the UN to combat sexual violence, little has been done to address the same underlying power dynamics present in international system and its institutions. By dividing the world into those who seek and those who have, into developed and developing, but negating any access to power that would actually shift these dynamics, rhetoric will remain nothing but euphemism of good will. Indeed the last decade has put extensive emphasis on ‘empowerment’, but this emancipation or empowerment has not been put into context. Empowerment only succeeds bottom up and to the conditions and terms people set for themselves but it cannot succeed as long as global structures remain oppressive and exploitative. Similarly, sexual violence is feminized and addressed as isolated crimes without addressing the structural causes of it which are – again- apparent in the societal, cultural, political and economic on a national as well as on a global scale. Only if it precedes the stage of a women’s issue and is addressed holistically can it actually be tackled. If gender and racial oppression, poverty and economic exploitation were as high on the Security agenda as –say terrorism-, surely there would be a change in how sexual violence is comprehended and securitized.


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*Leila van Rinsum is a political science student at the University of Nairobi.