It goes without saying that rape is a prevalent issue in our society. If we extend our view to encompass not just our own societies, but the globe, we see that rape is not just an issue, but an epidemic. Many are at least familiar with the idea of rape in our culture thanks to Hollywood cinema and shows such as “Law and Order: SVU”: A woman or child is sought after sexually for one reason or another and is obtained; that is to say, raped. Sometimes the victims survive, just like in real life, and these shows can depict what a woman or child in America must face as being the victim of rape.
However, a possibility that cannot be captured by television for its audience is that of rape as a weapon of war. It is something we are unaccustomed to think about in our society, but looking at many other regions in the world, such as the war-torn Congo nation in Africa, rape as a weapon of war is a harsh reality, far too real to even begin to imagine. The Congo is often dubbed “the rape capital of the world” and Michael Van Rooyen, the director of Harvard's Humanitarian Initiative and an emergency physician with experience in disaster zones, says it appears that “rape is becoming part of the culture” in the Congo, if it is not already.
Women in the Congo were seen as something akin to second class citizens long before the war started. Their place was behind their man; the Congolese Family Code required women to obey their husbands, the recognized head of household, even if it is the woman who is the only supporter of the family. However, it has long been a custom imbedded in the society there that women are not as important as men; a woman’s status relies on that of her husbands and boys are considered to be more valuable when they are educated than their educated female counterparts.
This ideal has a huge impact for rape victims and their families. The women and children who survive this horrible atrocity are often ostracized by their family, kin and even communities during their darkest hour when they need them most, all due to the cultural stigma perception of rape in the Congo. Those who survive the encounter often have no family to return home to, and those that do have family to return to are often ignored and shunned by their husbands and family members. If a woman is raped, it reflects on the husband and how he is not strong enough to protect her, thusly lowering his status in society. The social stigma of pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV and AIDS, are often added burdens that are pressed onto rape victims, even if they do not have those issues. The victims are also seen as broken or damaged goods, no longer suitable to be part of the family and would just bring shame to them if the women stay there.
What makes matters worse here is that the perpetrators of rape are on both sides of the war in the Congo. The Soldiers of President Kabila, the Rassemblement congolais pour la démocratie (RCD) and their combatants, consisting of the Burundian armed groups and rebel Rwandans as well as plain individuals or bandits, all use rape in wartime to achieve a specific mean. Rebels use rape to control villagers with fear, demoralize the population, since most would rather die than be raped, or just to punish those who support the government. Another trick they are taught is that they can also rape women since it is a spoil of war and they earned it, much like they mythos The Rape of the Sabine Women. This tactic is encouraged since it is believed that it will help “achieve success”.
On the other side of the coin, the soldiers rape to discourage female rebel sympathizers to try and seduce info from soldiers. What’s worse about this specific scenario (other than they protectors becoming the predators) is that many of these soldiers are taught that raping women is okay, part of their civic duty. That they need to let off steam or just to improve their morale if they are stationed away from their wives and raping a woman in the local area will do that for them. Not to mention the bandits/individuals take advantage of the situation, using the chaos to rape as they see fit. All of this combined with many other factors can make it very difficult to try and achieve justice for the victims of rape, if they even decide to step forward.
More often than not, many women keep the knowledge of their rape a secret if they can. Many of the rapists threaten to kill them if they try to come forward or other such attempts of reporting the crime. However, coming forwards isn’t just overcoming the fear of a looming threat, it’s also admitting that you were raped, and thusly you would have to go through the social exile and suffer the stigma that comes along with that admission.
Many won’t even step forward for medical help or to get tested and treated for STDs and the like. Those that are mutilated and raped with guns or sticks and in almost all cases the victims are beaten before they are raped and need medical attention, let alone a rape kit or testing for STDs. But if they do go to clinics that help rape survivors, they will be seen as impure and shameful by their community and they are often terrified of the consequences of coming out and saying they were raped. More often than not, their attackers were covered or used fake names or were a part of the government itself. How are they going to get justice when those who are supposed to enforce the rules are the ones who are raping them? Those that were reported and tried were often let off the hook, paying off judges for their innocence. There’s too much corruption for there to be even an attempt for justice and that’s how many victims feel. They see this happen and figure there is nothing they can do to change their fate.
However, outside help from humanitarians are trying to change this- in fact, they are trying to change the way that rape is seen in the Congo and in other areas with similar ideological issues. For example, a group that seems to be doing rather well is the Washington based Women for Women International is doing a lot of groundbreaking work with the male leaders in that society to see that women play a vital role in society and then men must learn to stop rape before it happens. The WFW has expanded its Men’s Leadership Program and the program director Cyprien Walupakah gave a speech to many of the leaders in the community about how sexual abuse is anything that is against a woman’s will and how “if men are not involved, it will not change” and that it’s a step by step process and whether it has an impact has yet to be seen.
Nonetheless, even if this doesn’t quite have the impact that Walupakah hopes for, he is at least pleased with the fact that if the leaders opinions have been changed that “we can really form a new generation,” one that sees how women are vital components to having a family and how this horrific ordeal isn’t their fault and they should not be shunned for it. Hopefully we can get everyone to see the idea that we should not be teaching our children to “not get raped” but to “not rape”.
This principle has come from a huge campaign for human rights, specifically that for females, in the United States, Canada and even some countries in the Middle East. Recently, there has been a lot of media attention placed on “Slut Walks” which were walks to empower rape victims and to make aware the rape culture we have created. Many protestors hold up signs saying “my dress is not a yes” or “my clothing does not equal my consent” since even here in the States a popular misconception is that the victim was “asking for it” by the way she dressed. Rape is defined as having intercourse without the woman’s consent or against her will. No woman is ever asked to be raped.
Hopefully the Congolese, Sudanese, Rwandan, and many other cultures including our own that hold this ideal that rape is “okay”, will see that, in fact, it is not. Hopefully those in the Congo area will see that they shouldn’t just ignore rape victims and let it run rampart to become part of the culture and destroy the ones they love. Hopefully they will see rape for what it really is; not as a shameful thing you did, but as a horrible crime committed against you. And, hopefully, this won’t be a hope, but a reality.