Academic Epidemic

[Trigger warning for sexual violence.]

This article in The Atlantic on the rape epidemic in DR Congo is...odd.

On the one hand, I am incredibly interested in and supportive of rigorous study of sexual violence, because good solutions are indeed rooted in a comprehensive and accurate understanding of the culture of sexual violence.

On the other hand, the way the information is presented here ultimately reads as a weird discouragement against activism.

"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," writes author Laura Seay, which is right on, but then she immediately follows that observation with: "'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."

Well, sure, engaging soldiers with rape prevention isn't a direct solution to civilian rape, but reducing institutionally-sanctioned rape has a reverberating effect within any culture. (And I trust that Seay doesn't actually imagine "soldiers" and "husbands" to be mutually exclusive groups.) Suggesting that there is little value to the civilian population in directing rape prevention efforts at soldiers does not come across as supportive of comprehensive rape prevention, but rather the very opposite.

There also seems to be some straw-building here: I read and write about the rape epidemic in DR Congo quite a bit, and rarely do I find activists advocating singular solutions at the expense of comprehensive rape prevention, e.g. awareness-raising with soldiers but not civilians. Seay makes a good point about the disparity in state and NGO resource allocation, but it does raise the question about who the "we" actually is in the headline "Do We Have the Congo Rape Crisis All Wrong?"

And, again, the good point about disproportionately allocated resources—"the overwhelming international focus on rape also means that other services are shortchanged"—gets immediately undermined by a strangely discouraging sentiment: "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."

That does not read as an exhortation for the international community to increase the scope of its outreach to include additional attention on healthcare access, but as an admonishment to stop paying so much darn attention to sexual violence.

Surely, that was not Seay's intention, but that's why I find the entire article so odd, and so frustrating. Especially as it ends on this note:
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.
I mean, there's so much whatthefuckery there, I don't even know where to begin. Suffice it to say that talking about the need for "adapting a more balanced understanding" of DR Congo, immediately after tacitly suggesting dimming the spotlight on rape in DR Congo because of stereotypes of savagery that exist due to our own unwillingness to be honest about the ubiquity of rape in Western culture, is tremendously unfortunate, to put it politely.

Then there is this: The article makes no serious mention of strategies that empower Congolese survivors and potential victims of sexual violence. It's all from a perspective of intervention, rather than alliance and support. That's not incidental: That's a problem in and of itself, for reasons of efficacy and of agency. Addressing a rape crisis from a colonialist perspective that subverts agency is as bitterly ironic as it is unhelpful.

And I guess that underlines what the real problem with this article is: The biggest challenge is not really our understanding of DR Congo and its rape crisis, but our own cultural attitudes toward sexual violence, prevention, and empowerment. And toward the people of DR Congo.

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