Do We Have the Congo Rape Crisis All Wrong?

We've long understood the country's horrifying rate of sexual assault -- on average 48 rapes per hour -- to be a function and tool of conflict, but it may be something very different

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A victim of a mass rape attack in the town of Fizi, Democratic Republic of Congo poses for a photo. Her identity has been concealed for security reasons. She was among nearly 50 women who were raped during a campaign by Congolese soldiers that took place on a single night. Pete Muller/AP.

The international media lit up last week with news of a new study on rape in the Congo published in the American Journal of Public Health. The primary takeaway, that 48 women are raped every hour in Congo, was followed by larger questions: why is this happening, and can anything be done to stop it? But the story on the ground may be far different than how it appears in studies and in the media.

Reaction to the story was swift. Analyst Jason Stearns noted that this study is consistent with earlier reports and, while horrifying, not particularly surprising. Journalist Jina Moore pointed out that, since the data on which the study is based is about five years old, it may not accurately represent current reality. Foreign Policy's Elizabeth Dickinson asked a troubling question: "What if rape has actually become systemic -- not a brutal act of conquest so much as a systemic, even rational occurrence in a system that has been built upon violence?" Charli Carpenter pointed out the problem with focusing only on women as victims and noted the need for more studies of the rapists themselves.

Activist Eve Ensler responded to the report with an angry editorial, in which she argues that the time for studying rape in the DRC is over. We already know that the Congo has a rape crisis, she wrote, and should focus instead on ending the violence once and for all.

The desire for action is understandable, but these studies are important for understanding the causes, and thus solutions, of the problems. A growing body of literature suggests that the prevailing journalistic and activist accounts of the nature of rape in the Congo are often incomplete, and, in many cases, simply wrong. While no one disputes that armed men engage in rape against civilian populations, the story of who is raping whom turns out to be significantly more complicated than the popular narrative suggests.

Rapes by non-military actors account for a large percentage of rape cases in the DRC. A 2010 Oxfam/Harvard Humanitarian initiative study found a huge increase in the number of civilian-perpetrated rapes between 2004 and 2008. By 2008, approximately 40 percent of rapes were committed by civilians, they found. The AJPH study found that 22.5 percent of rapes in their study sample were perpetrated by husbands and other intimate partners, not by soldiers sweeping through a village. It also found an extraordinarily high rate of rape in Equateur province, far from the violence of the Kivus and Ituri. This finding suggests that civilian-perpetrated rape is not simply a function of conflict and the presence of multiple armed groups.

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Laura Seay is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia. She blogs at Texas in Africa.

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