Published on The Daily Femme – Monday, May 16, 2011

Contributed by Annamarya

Rape in the Democratic Republic of Congo is worse than previously thought, a new study released Wednesday and to be published in June by the American Journal of Public Health has found. According to the latest study, which The New York Times calls the “first comprehensive look at the prevalence of rape in Congo,” over 400,000 Congolese women are raped annually nationwide.  That’s over 1,100 raped every day, which means an average of 48 women per hour, or an average of one rape per minute. This number is nearly triple the yearly estimate of rape & sexual assault among American women, which is 164,240 women age 12 or older, according to the US Department of Justice’s March 2010 Criminal Victimization in the United States, 2008 Statistical Tables report.

The authors of the study, Amber Peterman of the International Food Policy Research Institute, Tia Palermo of Stony Brook University and Caryn Bredenkamp of the World Bank, used nationwide government-collected data between 2006 and 2007, and information from 3,436 Congolese women aged 15 to 49 interviewed for the 2007 Democratic Republic of Congo Demographic and Health Survey to reach their figures. They then used the current population estimate of 70 million Congolese people to analyze and deduce the aforementioned data. In terms of percentage, the researchers found that, of the over 400,000 women, 22 percent were victimized by their partners, 12 percent were raped at least once, and three percent were raped in the one-year period before the survey. Palmero, who was taken back by elevated levels of rape in places indirectly affected by war, concludes that women’s exposure to sexual violence is prevalent throughout Congo and not just in conflict-ridden areas.

But there’s another shocking aspect of this study’s estimate. It’s 26 times more than the number of 15,996 registered new sexual violence cases reported in 2008 by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), an international development agency promoting human rights & equality – official statistics Human Rights Watch befittingly called “fragmented” and failing “to paint an accurate picture” in its 2009 publication, Soldiers Who Rape, Commanders Who Condone: Sexual Violence and Military Reform in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The reason for such low figures? According to Margot Wallstrom, the UN Secretary-General’s Special Representative on Sexual Violence, only sexual violence cases verified by the organization can be reported to the Security Council. What’s more, she says, the UN has ”ethical obligations…not generally incumbent upon academics — namely to avoid interviewing survivors or exposing them to any risk of reprisal/re-traumatization in the absence of the ability to deliver services or follow-up on the case.” Still, she called the study “a commendable effort that helps to fill the gap in empirical research in this area,” and ”valuable in shedding light on risk factors, such as age, or region of residence, which moves the analysis beyond isolated incident reports to convey a sense of patterns.”

Surprisingly, however, this study seems to be a point of contention for Beatrix Attinger Colijn, head of the UN team investigating sexual violence in the Congo.  According to Reuters, Attinger Colijn disputed the legitimacy of the report, claiming that not only was the sample group size “too small” but that the research was not reflective of the “local and cultural factors that could affect rates of sexual violence.” On the face of it, this dissension doesn’t seem that terrible. After all, Palermo told Reuters that, despite being the “most accurate yet published,” the study is a “conservative estimate,” most likely due to cases that remain unregistered because of the stigma attached to rape reporting, which is considered a form of denunication. Additionally, as Jezebel points out, the study fails to include accounts of sexual violence experienced by girls under 15, women over 49, and the sharply rising number of victimized men & boys. Indeed, while this study is specifically focused on women, including those demographics would give a more thorough and accurate portrayal of rape in the country, which would allow for a better assessment of the root causes of sexual violence. Therefore, Attinger Colijn’s statement could seem more like a call for exactitude than criticism.

That’s not the case, though. Attinger Colijn goes on to say that accenting the problem of rape diverts attention from the immensity of other forms of violence and insecurity in the Congo, as large amounts of funds are already being donated to rape-focused projects. She also invalidates the statistics, claiming they’re irrelevant to the current situation because they’re five-years-old. “This seems a limited type of study, we try to get away from numbers and give a more analytical context of why sexual violence happens…We don’t need figures like this to know sexual violence is a problem, there are many other types of violence and human rights issues that need to be tackled,” Reuters quoted her as saying. The authors defended their report, telling VOA News that their research methods were in line with those used by top agencies researching global HIV and infant mortality rates, and that, unlike most studies, theirs focused on the entire Congo region, not just the war-torn east.

Given Attinger Colijn’s role in the region, a part of me understands what she was trying to say, even if I find her choice of words abhorrent: there needs to be an increase in awareness concerning the violence, insecurity, and other human rights atrocities affecting the Congo. But the way to raise that awareness is not by downplaying or dismissing the pernicious number of rapes occurring in the nation. Instead, it should be a matter of doubling efforts in those areas while still combating sexual violence full force because, as Jezebel notes, we can never pay too much attention to the issue no  matter the number of Congolese women raped each year. Rape is rape is rape and it needs to end.

What really struck me about this story, however, was not what Attinger Colijn said. It was how a friend – a rape survivor – responded to it. My friend, who first brought the story to my attention after reading a Metro article, was enraged. To quote them (but not verbatim):

How can anyone say rape should take a backseat? I can’t think of any violation worse than rape. It not only leaves physical scars, it also leaves emotional scars and mental scars. Nevermind the way society treats rape victims as if they deserved the rape, as if it’s their fault because of where they were or who they are or what they were wearing or what they were doing. It’s something victims have to live with for the rest of their lives.

So how can rape take a backseat to other human rights atrocities? The short answer: It can’t and shouldn’t. Anyone who suggests that it is a distraction from other issues or doesn’t deserve as great an emphasis doesn’t fully grasp the veritable tragedy of rape. And they should never head a task force tackling the issue. Ever.

American Journal of Public Health: Estimates and Determinants of Sexual Violence Against Women in the Democratic Republic of Congo

Reuters: 400,000-plus women raped in Congo yearly: study

New York Times: Congo Study Sets Estimate for Rapes Much Higher


3 thoughts on “Should Rape In the Congo Take a Backseat to Other Human Rights Atrocities?

  1. I am not sure you understand the purpose of this article. I am not arguing it should be a cause above all other human rights abuses. I am saying it shouldn’t take a backseat EVER. All human rights atrocities so be on equal footing.

    As for false allegations, those are a very, very, very small percentage of actual rapes reported. To believe that false rape allegations make up more of a percentage than statistically exists, or to passively promote the idea that most accusations are false (when in reality, that’s not the case)–thus furthering a harmful victim-blaming, slut-shaming rape culture–AND TO COVERTLY ADVOCATE VIOLENCE AGAINST ANYONE is to deny the existence of rape and how it ravages societies.

    • We fundamentally agree that there needs to be an end to rape and a revolution to demolish rape culture. I hate to tell you though, false rape accusations are not rare at all–between 8% and 15% by the police estimates, which ironically-by-design are not included in the FBI’s statistics.

      And that doesn’t speak to the 40% of cases cleared by “exceptional means”, i.e. no charges brought, etc, he-said-she said, etc, woman’s boyfriend was a cop, etc….

      But the inherent problem is as I see it is false rape reporting actually effects the possibility of the issue being taken to heart by the wider public, and specifically men who definitely can relate to violence( because men are the primary targets of violence and death at all times) but not this kind of violence.

      To build a movement based on one lie is shaky ground; to build a house with one bad brick is not a disaster waiting to happen–but to build a foundation with weak bricks, mudbricks, and half bricks makes the house fall down eventually.

      False rape reporting IS advocating violence against men, and until these women who falsely report are held accountable, there can be no justice, and the wider audience of allies will continue to remain passive in defense of a lop-sided issue.

  2. I don’t know about that–after all, the socializing of males ( the sexing) is the exact thing that leads to rape. In a simple phrase: If we raised both boys and girls to be warriors, we would have little, or no rape. Put another way, baby boy soldiers in the Congo who rape, are themselves victims of inter-generational homicide,often having lost their fathers.

    Promoting rape as a cause above all other human rights abuses, is like building a temple on top of dead men’s bones. Worse, false rape accusations contribute to a situation where women invite the next oppressor to sit down at the table and dine, while the children play on the depleted uranium fields of dead fathers.

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