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

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.

We have also learned that not all rapists in the Congo are men, and not all victims are women. A study on mental and physical health in the eastern DRC by Kirsten Johnson et al published last year in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that women are committing acts of sexual violence against other women at a surprisingly high rate. Since there are very few women fighting in Congolese armed groups or even in the national army, this supports the Oxfam/HHI conclusion emphasizing civilian-perpetrated rape.

There are also problems with the "rape as a weapon of war" narrative. Studying rape victims in Ituri, researchers Francoise Duroch, Melissa McRae, and Rebecca Grais concluded that rape is not used as part of military strategy to achieve a particular goal. They also found a significant number of civilian-perpetrated rapes in their sample.

Maria Eriksson Baaz and Maria Stern, who study military involvement in rape, interviewed soldiers for their 2010 working paper, The Complexity of Violence. Baaz and Stern challenge the stereotypes about the role rape plays in the DRC conflicts, including that rape is the main mechanism of violence and that only women and girls are victims of gender-based violence. They also conclude that "while sexual and other violence is often used to humiliate and intimidate, this humiliation and intimidation is much less strategic and much more complex than a combat strategy to further military/political gains."

This research matters because an inaccurate or incomplete understanding of the nature and causes of the rape crisis in the DRC will lead to inappropriate and ineffective policy responses. "Sensitizing" soldiers about the criminal nature of rape won't do much to stop civilians from raping their neighbors, or husbands from committing marital rape against their wives. The overwhelming direction of resources to the Kivu provinces, in part a reaction to the perception that this is the area is the source of the problem, means that rape victims in Equateur and elsewhere are unable to get the assistance they need.

Meanwhile, the overwhelming international focus on rape also means that other services are shortchanged. While rape victims in the Kivus have a good chance of getting needed medical services, a woman suffering from breast cancer is unlikely to have access treatment. As Baaz and Stern note, the focus on rape and the subsequent burst of humanitarian focus on the crisis creates perverse incentives for women to falsely present themselves as rape victims in order to access health care.

Another problem with the overwhelming humanitarian focus on rape is that it, as journalist Howard French pointed out out, feeds into some of the worst popular stereotypes about Africa. It makes it easier for policy makers to dismiss the Congolese crisis as savagery rather than as the product of a political crisis in the midst of state failure. It is only by adapting a more balanced understanding of the Congo's political, economic, and humanitarian challenges that we can be in a position to undertake a far more daunting, and more important, challenge than studying DRC sexual violence: doing something to stop it.