Researching sexual violence in the armed conflict of eastern DRC
September 2012. My Congolese friend Marie-Noël, who runs a small, community-based NGO, welcomes us in Ruzizi, a border town between Rwanda and the DRC. We hop in her jeep and head for Bukavu. Five minutes later, the car is stopped. Two men have barricaded the road with a large tree branch. Fidel, our driver, refuses to pay the money they ask for. He shouts at them to let us pass. The men give in, open the barrier and exclaim ‘c’est pour la sécurité régionale!/ it is for our regional security!’, which is met with a roar of laughter on the street. Marie-Noël laughs too. She explains fictional article 15 of the former Zaïrean constitution which means ‘débrouillez-vous/fend for yourself’. Article 15, also known as ‘système D’, came into existence under Mobutu’s dictatorship. It allows the ‘petit prédateur’/little predator (Devisch, 1998) a social space of power ‘in a context where the difference between legality and illegality makes no more sense’ (Jourdan in Vlassenroot & Raeymaekers, 2004). Institutionalised in all levels of society, article 15 allows every civilian to grab whatever his predicament can afford for his daily survival. In the wartorn Kivus, ‘système D’ has become the rule for individual behaviour. I think about the women who claim they have been raped to get access to medical care and wonder whether this occurrence of would-be victims can be considered as a normal expression of ‘système D’ or ‘survival maximising behaviour’.
I decided to go on this field trip in order to better understand how singular international attention to war-time rape plays out on the ground. Indeed, many informants agree that for reasons unknown to them sexual violence has gained prominence globally and has rightfully become the object of widespread and earnest concern. However, researchers have argued there is a downside to this global attention. The exclusive targeting of programmes for victims of sexual violence results in adverse consequences, such as an increased commercialisation of sexual violence. For example, one report claims that some aid agencies exaggerate rape stories in order to get publicity and thus funding. Some local observers point to the ‘humanitarian business of sexual violence’ and its funds-driven nature; others point to the many women who claim they have been raped in order to access health care.
It becomes soon clear during my interviews that stories about rape claims are common and known to all organisations. A UNHCR Protection Officer tells me that she personally knows a lot of NGOs that claim to be doing programs on sexual violence just to get funding. She says: ‘They are no experts. It may be somebody who has three kids and who says that he/she is a consultant in psycho-social assistance.’ She continues: ‘This happens all the time but it is difficult to monitor because nobody can forbid somebody to do something. As long as there is funding it is difficult to interrupt these activities.’
Undoubtedly, the international response to the problem of sexual violence has led to certain unwanted side-effects. However, there is a downside to this critique as well. During other interviews in Bukavu and Goma with staff members of United Nations bodies, it is emphasized again and again that sexual violence in eastern DRC is still a huge problem with devastating consequences for the victims, their families and communities. When asked whether there is too much focus on sexual violence, a former Panzi worker answers: “No, the problem of sexual violence is very real and needs to be addressed, because the survivors of sexual violence are still numerous. Shifting focus away from sexual violence will not solve any problems, but the responses need to be on several issues, including sexual violence.’ Upon asking if sexual violence can be considered a business, she states: ‘For the serious actors on the ground (local and international), there is no self-fulfillment in focusing on sexual violence if it is not a serious problem.’
While I believe it is important to question the one-sided focus and its perverse consequences, I struggle with the question on how to do this without downplaying the severity and intensity of sexual violence in the DRC. Critically assessing the negative consequences of the international response to sexual violence can be useful but will this not endanger much needed funds for those serious actors on the ground? What about the victims? Can you look them in the eyes and explain that as part of your research, you question the ‘exaggerated’ focus on sexual violence? Even requesting that the focus be shifted away can be a dangerous move as it might decrease much of the reparative work being done by NGOs.
When visiting a facility that treats victims of sexual violence, I am confronted with the enormous difficult circumstances they work in. Worried that I might be perceived as ‘another’ researcher on sexual violence or ‘another’ westerner that comes to visit a ‘rape hospital’, I am faced with the paradoxical nature of my research questions: Is there too much focus on sexual violence? Is sexual violence considered a business for agencies and individuals? One informant even questioned whether this debate should take place in the first place, considering the suffering so many Congolese women and men have to endure and the lack of adequate assistance they receive?
While international organisations, UN bodies, donors and local actors play a significant role in determining how sexual violence is framed and addressed, it is of the utmost importance to take into consideration the crucial link with the local context in which the violence is embedded. In the survival economy of the Kivus, the humanitarian sector has taken over many state functions. This means that locals will just tap into whatever resource and whatever discourse that generates some money, whether it is sexual violence or another issue. “In a society where people are forced to multiply their chances of opportunity, the NGO is just one more card to play” (Büscher & Vlassenroot, 2010). Système D enables every actor to ‘instrumentalise his/her own disorder’ (Verweijen, 2013). ‘Never forget’, Marie-Noël assured me, that ‘the Congolese take pride in their disorder/ils ont une fierté sur leur désordre’.
Charlotte Mertens is a doctoral candidate at the University of Melbourne. She researches the framing of sexual violence within the discourse of the United Nations and how this is translated on the ground in the context of the armed conflict in eastern DRC. Additionally, she conducts research into the local conflict dynamics that cause war-time rape.
to contact her: firstname.lastname@example.org