I came across a rather disturbing report recently (thanks to Wronging Rights) released by the Nordic African Institute of the Swedish International Development Agency (SIDA). Titled The Complexity of Violence: A critical analysis of sexual violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) it is a critical examination of how crimes of sexual violence in the Congo are depicted, documented and reported on. Specifically the report challenges the prioritized focus on sexual violence, as something ‘abnormal’ and different from other forms of violence, and the undue and highly publicized attention given to it by international health, aid and media organizations.

The researchers argue that (see page 13 through 15 of the report):

…sexual violence in the DRC has tended to be conceptualised as “abnormal” and fundamentally different from and outside of other forms of violence, which are presumed to be ungendered. By “ungendered”, we mean that the gendered aspects of other types of violence are not seen to be significant or relevant. Conceptualising sexual violence as somehow “abnormal” or outside other forms of violence by being gendered has ultimately contributed to dehumanising those who rape (and also ultimately those who are raped)…

…the specific, often exclusive, focus on sexual violence is problematic in that it hampers our understanding of the relationship between sexual violence and other (supposedly) “ungendered” violence. Emphasising and commenting on only the sexual violence mentioned in testimonies that also talk of other forms of violence hinders our understanding of the relationship between sexual violence and other violence. These forms of violence are, to a large extent, manifestations of the same systemic failures and mechanisms as those contributing to SGBV…

…the DRC experience shows that a singular focus on sexual violence within a very wide repertoire of human rights abuses by state security forces risks feeding into the “commercialisation of rape” or the perception of “rape as an income earning strategy”. In a context of a corrupt judiciary, rampant poverty, decreasing stigma and the almost total absence of basic health and social services, the focus on sexual violence as a particularly serious crime and the resources provided specifically for survivors of rape give rise to situations where allegations of rape become a survival strategy.

…the storyline of GBV in the DRC has been embedded in a limited understanding of gender, which conflates sex with gender and ignores the many ways in which wartime gendered violence also affects men and boys.

This is perhaps the most detailed and extensive analysis of the issue of sexual violence in time of war that i have read to date. It goes far into the historical, social, economic, institutional and other factors that may encourage and offer impunity to acts of mass rapes in a nation at war. The report challenges our presumptions about why rapes occur, what their objectives are, whether they are actually a ‘weapon of war’ as it is so commonly referred to these days.

I found it particularly interesting to read paragraphs like the following which open our eyes to ‘sanctioned’ sexuality amongst the military and violent sexuality that may occur in a conflict, and the presumptions and prejudices that both share.

As explained above, the soldiers themselves cite poverty as the main reason for rape. According to this line of reasoning, it is as “somewhat unavoidable” that a man—who in any way is “denied sex” through lack of financial or other means—will eventually rape. This reasoning is a familiar echo of myths about male heterosexuality, masculinity, soldiering, and violence reproduced in military contexts. The Congolese military celebrates certain ideals of macho heterosexual masculinity. A (male) soldier’s libido is understood as a formidable natural force, which ultimately demands sexual satisfaction from women. Similar portrayals of masculinity can be found in most other military institutions globally. For example, men’s sexual needs are often presented as the reason for the need of regular R & R… Army brothels have also frequently been used, not the least during the Second World War. The prostitution rings that notoriously surround army bases, including current UN forces worldwide such as MONUC, is another example of this phenomenon. (page 47)

But perhaps the most eye-opening pages of the report are under the section called ‘Commercialization of Rape’. As the writers point out:

The attention received by SGBV in eastern DRC is, simply put, out of proportion to the attention received by other equally grave human rights violations (mass killings of villagers, systematic torture of detainees, etc.). This is problematic, since it means that other violence does not receive adequate attention, but also because it has other consequences: it contributes to a process in which allegations of rape are perceived as, and become, a particularly effective bargaining, and ultimately quite effective income-earning, strategy. (page 51)

Resulting in a situation where:

Another problem is more specifically connected to the vast resources from international organisations earmarked for various services to rape survivors. The lack of basic health services and the lack of resources for women who have not been raped—plus the widespread poverty—have created a situation in which destitute women and girls who are not rape survivors sometimes present themselves as rape victims in order gain access to these opportunities….A similar situation arises in connection with other services provided to rape survivors, such as food aid, training/education and credit facilities. According to local organisations, such instances mostly involve women and girls who have lost their families and therefore have little to lose from the stigma of rape. However, with the increasing attention to sexual violence and combating stigma and shame, in combination with high prevalence of such violence, the stigma associated with rape has also decreased, facilitating the process of presenting oneself as a rape survivor in order to access services. (page 54)

Far from detracting from the gravity of the crimes, and the urgency and seriousness of its human, social, cultural and other consequences, this analysis sheds a light on the ways in which aid organizations, and journalists influence and create consequences on the ground. It points out that we – aid workers, photojournalists, writers, reporters etc. are not neutral observers but in fact affect, influence and possibly contort the very situations we insert ourselves in and report on.

This was also the subject of a fascinating book by Peter Uvin, a professor at Tufts University, titled Aiding Violence: The Development Enterprise in Rwanda where as early as the introduction of the work he points out that he will show:

…the process of development, and the international aid given to promote it interacted with the forces of exclusion, inequality, pauperization, racism and oppression that laid the groundwork for the 1994 genocide. In countries…where development aid provides a large share of the financial and moral resources of government and civil society, development aid cannot help but play a crucial role in shaping the processes that lead to violence.

These, much like what is in the SIDA report, are difficult examinations, but necessary. We are too casual in our assumptions about sexual violence in Africa (or elsewhere for that matter!), and too comfortable presenting it as yet another African ‘barbarism’. The SIDA reports offers insights into socio-economic factors that explain acts of rape, while reminding us how our actions and behaviors in response to the situation affect and influence the habits,behaviors and responses of the very people we are claiming to help. This argument is extended further by Professor Uvin’s work which invites us to set aside our naive and frankly infantile ideas about the ‘purity’ and ‘chastity’ of ‘development aid’ enterprise and begin to see its connections and its unintended consequences.