Guest Column: Focusing on the violence and democracy in Congo

Most Americans are aware that something is happening in the Democratic Republic of the Congo; it is a nation one hears about with relative frequency, but there has been a distinct indifference in the United States during the past 15 years of conflict. What has happened is a civil war, continued military conflict, foreign mineral exploitation of one of the world’s resource rich countries and mass sexual violence. We do not know the exact number of women who have been raped, but the estimates lie in the hundreds of thousands, with an alarming HIV infection rate as well. Author Jason Stearns suggests that a reliable U.S.-based study indicates there were 400,000 women raped in the DRC in one year.

Violence against women in the Congo is not the byproduct of war, an argument commonly made about rape that occurs during military conflicts. Congolese women and children are the specific targets of particularly violent sexual assaults. It is not something that happens on the side; it is something that is intrinsically part of the problem. The majority of the world is aware of this sexual violence, and although there have been some efforts to address the issue, rape continues unabated, and even increasing in frequency.

Very simply put, something about intervention is obviously not working. We need to figure out a better way to address the issue of sexual violence. One way to address this issue is to shift the focus from women as rape victims to men as rapists. We cannot just discuss rape, pregnancy, disease and the horrific physical trauma resulting from the kinds of sexual violence perpetrated against women.

In a startling example of blindness, the Western world focuses only on women telling and re-telling stories of rape complete with lurid details, and sometimes horrific images either of injuries or of rape, and on the failure of social recovery often explained as a result of the woman’s ruination, her unmarriageability and her excludability from society. We must focus our attention on the men committing rape—one cannot prevent rape by addressing its effects. One can only prevent rape by targeting the rapist, by analyzing how women are represented in society, by attempting to change how men perceive women as rapeable and by changing the position of women in society such that rape is not considered a reasonable action by rapists and so that societal punishment of women after rape is not considered normal—tragic, but normal.

These are only a few of the ways in which the global community must re-conceptualize the violence in the Congo. In an attempt to re-frame the conversation about the Congo, Kent State University’s 12th Annual May 4th Symposium on Democracy (April 28-29) will focus on violence and democracy in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. This international conference will address a number of themes, including extractive industries, democratic solutions to the crisis, sexual violence and the representation of women in society. For more information on the conference, please visit our website: