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.