Versions of this post appeared on OpEdNews and on Alex Engwete (French). Recently, the phenomenon of sexual terrorism has taken on a new form in eastern Congo: “bush wives” or those “men raped by other men,” to use New York Times reporter Jeffrey Gettleman’s tautological expression, for to date, in the African Great Lakes region, rapists only come in one gender: men!
Rwanda exported “sexual terrorism” to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), mostly in the late 1990s, when the chase and revenge killings of the perpetrators of the 1994 genocide turned into a full-scale counter-genocide of Hutu refugees with more than 230,000 victims.
Beside outright killings, rapes and sexual mutilations of Hutu women were systematically carried out as a form of punishment for their ethnic group’s perpetration of genocide in Rwanda. And since then, northeastern Congo has become the epicenter of this scourge where it has festered among roving armed bands, penetrated the anthropological fabric of the Congolese society, and results today in the near psychological and physical destruction of rape victims from that part of the country. A sociohistorical antecedent that still has to find a definition and a body of scholarship in social sciences. The most shocking thing about this is that the ongoing sexual terrorism in the Congo has caused scant media attention in Africa and in the rest of the world. A situation that has since been remedied with the release last year of Lisa Jackson’s award-winning documentary The Greatest Silence: Rape in the Congo.
What’s more, African and Congolese social scientists claim to be unable to develop a theoretical tool able to map out, trace, and explain the horrific phenomenon. As the photographer Hazel Thompson puts it in the legend of one of the horrific photographs she brought back from eastern Congo in early October 2007: “No one — doctors, aid workers, Congolese and Western researchers — can explain exactly why this is happening. ‘We don’t know why these rapes are happening, but one thing is clear,’ said Dr.[Denis] Mukwege (above photo), ‘They are done to destroy women.’”
Really! Would then this be the first human deviant behavior to baffle scientists in the history of the social sciences?
And yet, in the course of only a 3-week fieldwork period in eastern Congo in the winter of 2004, a couple of female bureaucrats at USAID who didn’t shy away from tackling head on this phenomenon, gave it the name sexual terrorism, now tagged by the UN, and developed in the process a basic theoretical toolkit for understanding it – to the shame and grief of academic social scientists!
What’s sexual terrorism?
The findings of these two bureaucrats are contained in a small, little-known 30-page assessment report by USAID’s Office of Transition Initiative and Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance that was published on 18 March 2004 in PDF format. Besides defining sexual terrorism, tracing its roots, and offering the first description of its horrific psycho-medical impact on women, the most interesting thing about the conceptual development of this document is the fact that it was wholly elaborated by a team of women in the rape fields of the Congo. The document is entitled Sexual Terrorism: Rape as a Weapon of War in Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo: An Assessment of programmatic responses to sexual violence in North Kivu, South Kivu, Maniema, and Orientale Provinces (January 9-16, 2004).
The report was penned by Dr Marion Pratt (Social Science Advisor) and Leah Werchik, J.D. (Human Rights Advisor) – with a team of 5 other women bureaucrats, and a host of Congolese women investigators. What’s also very significant about this report is that, though written by bureaucrats, it is bound one day to become a seminal academic conceptual tool in analyzing the phenomenon.
The report’s definition of “sexual terrorism” is descriptive:
“Rape and associated violence against civilians (women, men, girls, and boys) have been widely employed as weapons in the multiple regional and civil wars that have plagued the eastern provinces of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Such violence was noted in cross-border hostilities in 1991 but became more frequent in1994 in the context of regional conflicts stemming from the Rwandan genocide and the pursuant exodus of Rwandan civilians and armed groups into eastern DRC. Fighting continued and grew in the two waves of conflict – known locally as World War I and World War II – that followed in 1996 and 1998, involving seven countries at one point. Perceived as a particularly effective weapon of war and used to subdue, punish, or take revenge upon entire communities, acts of sexual and gender-based violence increased concomitantly. Attacks have comprised individual rapes, sexual abuse, gang rapes, mutilation of genitalia, and rape-shooting or rape-stabbing combinations, at times undertaken after family members have been tied up and forced to watch. The perpetrators have come from among virtually all of the armies, militias and gangs implicated in the conflicts, including local bands that attacked their own communities and local police forces. According to a doctor at Panzi Hospital in Bukavu, many victims in that area reported that attackers would encircle villages and rape the women publicly and collectively, including children and the elderly.”
African academics would certainly gain in realism by reading through this short report. The one attempt to my knowledge by an African (male) scholar to describe the phenomenon is couched in almost unreadable language characteristic of the much-discredited deconstruction fad (though the scholar I’m referring to would vehemently refute my lumping him with postmodern Derridean deconstructionists). The Cameroonian academic and prolific postmodernist theorist Achille Mbembe, whom I am referring to, attempted, as I just said, to grasp this phenomenon of sexual terrorism in parts of his essay entitled “Sovereignty as a Form of Expenditure.” I am not even going to dwell on this notion of “expenditure” [dépense] borrowed from the one-time surrealist French philosopher Georges Bataille. But suffice it to say that when our African (male) scholar tries to capture the phenomenon, he fails miserably as he plods through the conceptual field of the equally discredited old psychoanalytic rut:
“In the face of the sense – widespread among men – of menacing feminization, rites of proving or demonstrating one’s virility are multiplying. With the assistance of a context dominated by wars, the tension between what is threatened with extinction and what both formerly has been and now is suppressed is exacerbated, and relations of substitutability between the phallus and the gun are instituted.
On the one hand, and for a number of child-soldiers who now make up the greater part of the armed bands, the demonstration of one’s virility is achieved by means of the gun. The possession of a gun acts, in its turn, as the equivalent of the possession of a phallus on one’s passage out of the age of virginity. But the mediation of the gun for the phallus is only imaginary. Putting to death by means of the gun takes place almost simultaneously with being put to the test through the act of sex – in this case, generally speaking, by group rape. On the other hand, to possess a gun is to enjoy a position of almost unrestricted access to sexual goods; it is, above all, to have access in a very concrete manner to a certain form of abundance at the heart of which a woman is constituted as a superfluity, as what one can dispense with without concern as for whether one will be able to replace it with a similar provision at a later date. Finally, the sexual act itself manages to become an element, not merely of rape, but of violence as such. Rape, to the extent that access to the inwardness of woman is achieved by breaking and entering; violence, to the extent that one uses force to possess and to dominate someone else’s will as one would in combat. And so enjoyment through the gun and through the phallus are conjoined, the one ending in a corporeality that is inert and emptied of all life, death; and the other by a discharge as violent as it is brief, the orgasmic satisfaction by the means of which the power of enjoyment is converted into a power of radically objectifying the Other, whose body one bores into, digs into, excavates, and empties in the very act of rape.”
Now, this is certainly great wordsmithery at best or, at worst, utter shamanism in the art of word-mongering. It’s a shame that this wordy exercise should come from an African scholar reflecting on an urgent African problem! I just used my “word count” tool on both these quotations: the definition of sexual terrorism by Dr. Marion Pratt and Leah Werchik consists of about 227 words, while Achille Mbembe’s obscure aphorism runs for about 375 words that have absolutely no bearing on the destruction of women currently taking place in the Congo. My guess is that had Dr. Patt and Werchik produced the kind of Mbembe’s lyrical narrative to their supervising boss, they’d have been fired on the spot and driven off any American bureaucracy!
The report of Dr Pratt and Werchik should shame all of us that usually lament the built-in systemic wastefulness of bureaucracies and big government. In fact, the U.S. government should staff its bureaucracy with more of this type of no-nonsense bureaucrats. In contrast, the kind of scholarly obfuscation displayed by Achille Mbembe, given the urgent need of action and solutions on behalf of African women victims of sexual terrorism, amounts to reckless academic malpractice. Wouldn’t we then understand why some have called this kind of postmodern “new scholarship” an empty, solipsist, and nihilistic exercise devoid of any realism that would make Bertrand Russell turn in his grave? Would we then question the policy of some African countries faced with limited resources, like Botswana, to restrict scholarship awards for higher education abroad only to those students pursuing studies in “hard sciences”? Wouldn’t academia benefit by opening up to practical scholarly analysis displayed by bureaucrats of the likes of Dr Pratt and Werchik instead of constricting its “cultural studies” departments’ productions to empty exercises in intellectual self-cannibalism by overpaid star scholars?
What’s very astonishing is that Achille Mbembe’s essay is contained in a collective book edited by Thomas Blom Hansen and Finn Stepputat entitled Sovereign Bodies: Citizens, Migrants, and States in the Postcolonial World (Princeton University Press) published in 2005 – that is, one full year after Dr. Pratt and Werchik’s report was released and posted on the internet. Which means that a simple Google search could have saved Achille Mbembe from whirling around in the embarrassing conceptual rumba we read above.
To get a sense of the horrors of “sexual terrorism,” we thus need to leave the hallways of academia and go to the cubicles of American bureaucracy. A change of venue that shows that Academia is irrelevant when it comes to solving pressing African problems today.
In the short report meticulously and economically crafted by Dr. Pratt and Werchik, the alleged mystery of the mechanism of sexual terrorism unfolds without any syntactic contortions. In just one page of this report, we learn that sexual terrorism has no bounds in terms of its victims’ age who “range in age from four months… to 84 years of age”; in terms of its social consequences as “wave after wave of armed occupation resulted in the disintegration of the moral and social fabric in many localities”; and in terms of its medical, psychosocial, economic, and physiological toll: “Social stigma has left large numbers of rape victims and children born of rape rejected by their families and communities. Many cases of HIV and other infections remain untested and untreated. Fear of going to fields and markets, sites where rapes often take place, has resulted in spiraling malnutrition and economic loss. Widespread criminal impunity and inadequate local and regional governance leave communities without means to reduce the violence.”
The descriptive mode of the report by no means signifies that these two USAID bureaucrats have no understanding of the general academic theory on rape – in fact their short report contains a bibliography with 28 references, including books, reports, and scholarly articles. They do indeed rehearse the most recent scholarly typology of the scourge of rape – specifically Dr. Patricia Rozée’s categories: “punitive rape (used to punish, to elicit silence and control); status rape (occurring as a result of acknowledged differences in rank – master/slave, nobleman/commoner; etc); ceremonial rape (undertaken as part of socially sanctioned rituals or ceremonies); exchange rape (when genital contact is used as a bargaining tool or gesture of conciliation or solidarity); theft rape (involuntary abduction of individuals as slaves, prostitutes, concubines, or spoils of war); and survival rape (when young women become involved with older men to secure goods and/or services needed to survive.” To this, Dr. Pratt and Werchik add their own categories: rape “used to subjugate [entire] populations as a means of gaining access to valuable or scarce assets.”
In tracing the origins of the on-going destruction of women in the Congo, these two bureaucrats point to its “ground zero” of origination: “Certainly, partly due to women’s low legal status in both the traditional and civil domains, rape existed in the eastern provinces before the Rwandan genocide exodus in 1994 and the civil wars of 1996 and 1998. However, most of those cases reportedly took the form of the rape of a girl by a male ‘admirer’ when she went to gather firewood or collect water, for example; the issue was resolved between families by marrying the two, or by requiring the perpetrator to pay restitution to the girl’s family in the form of one or two goats. The extremely high number of cases of rape and the horrific mutilations that began to be reported from 1996 on, however, appears to replicate the massive sexual violence documented in Rwanda during the Rwandan genocide.”
The counter-genocide on the Hutu in the Congo by Rwandan troops that spearheaded Laurent Kabila’s rebel troops spread and entrenched this madness, which, according to this report, has even contaminated the Pygmies, who used to be ranked by anthropologists as belonging to the category of “peaceful communities”: “Even the pygmies (or Mbuti tribe), long known for their relatively peaceful demeanor and pacific philosophies, have been drawn into the violence. Their once seemingly idyllic life in the Ituri forests (…) has been slowly transformed at least partly by their painful absorption into more urban settings, and marked by abuse, exploitation, and profound ethnic discrimination. The team discovered that under the cloak of war-induced chaos in North Katanga and other areas, Pygmy men have finally begun to fight back, and are said to be responsible for raping and pillaging Bantu villages– allegedly with the encouragement of Rwandans – in retaliation for decades of abuse.”
What’s even alarming is that in some areas, rape has also turned into the social norm for curtailing or punishing women’s so-called “deviant” or “transgressive” behavior: “The use of sexual violence as a tool of domination and punishment has spread to the community level as well; the team was told of many individual cases of ‘punishment’ perpetrated by civilians against one another. In one instance in North Kivu, a young girl was raped by the owner of a mango tree for taking a green fruit without asking… The use of sexual violence has proliferated to the point that even the most seemingly minor of transgressions or old personal scores are now dealt with through the use of rape and violence.”
Adding to this mix newly-created rape superstitions of prepubescent and postmenopausal women – a superstition reminiscent of the South-African male fallacy on Aids-preemptive rape of female children, then the plight of Congolese women would seem to have no end in sight: “The team heard from several sources that superstitions and fetishism are also playing a role in sexual violence. It was said that some men believe that sex with prepubescent or postmenopausal women can give strength to or protect fighters from injury or death… Paid, professional féticheurs [shamans] in Beni and the surrounding area are allegedly taking advantage of the situation, advising their customers, for example, that raping young girls can protect them from harm or improve their business dealings.”
And page after page of this report, the horrific account of the destruction of Congolese women dissected with the precision and the cold matter-of-factness of traditional and seasoned scholarship that stands out as an indictment of the pomposity of Achille Mbembe or the conceptual helplessness of Congolese social scientists.
One is particularly horrified at the lack of statistics that could give the extent of this unprecedented destruction of women, due largely to the scarcity of funding for carrying out such grim tallies: “There is a natural tendency to want to know how extensive a problem sexual violence is in order to properly address it. However, the assessment team felt strongly that scarce funding should not be used at this time to try to determine total numbers of cases, victims, and survivors. Such studies can be carried out later if necessary, based on dossiers kept by human rights organizations, hospitals, NGOs, and other groups.”
But five years after the release of this report, the destruction of Congolese continues unabated in the jungle and townships of eastern Congo. With these destroyed women carrying in their bodies for the rest of their lives the psychological and physical stigmas: “Rape survivors with fistulas – tears in genital tissue that can cause uncontrollable leakage of fecal matter or urine – need highly specialized care that is both time-consuming and expensive. A doctor at Panzi Hospital told the team, “Sometimes the destruction is such that the women have no more vagina.”
Photo: Hazel Thompson for The New York Times