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Field notes

Third post by Charlotte Mertens

Colonial Memories, Sexual Violence and Current Humanitarianism

Conducting archival work in the Africa Museum of Tervuren, I am amazed by the many expressions of genuine concern on the part of the colonial regime on the status and wellbeing of ‘la femme noire’/ ‘the black woman’. Perceived by colonials as ‘simple merchandise’, a ‘beast of burden’ and a ‘scapegoat for all catastrophes that befall a village’, they are ‘doomed to oppression without mercy’ (Bulletin de l’Union des Femmes Coloniales)[1]. ‘In the Congo, the man is the master and the woman is the slave’ (L’Eventail, 1908). Many documents emphasize the indigenous woman’s ‘moral superiority’ over the man’s.

When in the 1930s, the Belgian colonial regime established foyers sociaux, or domestic training institutions to teach Congolese girls and women home economics and maternal hygiene, the ultimate goal was exactly to ‘strive for the liberation of the indigenous woman as a beast of burden in order to give her the time and the energy to devote herself to the traditional role of wife and mother as in the civilised countries’ (translated from Mianda, 1995, 54). The colonial politics of improving the status of this ‘pauvre créature/poor creature’ (Capt. Hennebert, 1908, archives Africa Museum) was seen as a humanitarian cause: ‘One has to say, ‘to colonise’ is to educate, it is to become more civilised, it is to diminish the suffering and misery due to ignorance (BUFC, Jan/Feb 1931). These politics allowed the colonial regime to produce itself as the protector/saviour of the native women.

Obviously, much is new since the colonial times and current approaches have moved away from domesticating humanitarianism. Local NGOs, civil society actors and grassroots organisations now share the international political stage with imperial actors and others. Yet these colonial memories should not be forgotten.

Sexual violence and the ‘injured bodies’[2] of Congolese women is the most recent frame through which the DRC is made knowable and through which the role of humanitarian organisations are made meaningful. A constant reiteration of the pain undergone by female rape victims marks the international discourse on sexual violence. Campaigns such as Stop Rape Now (UN Action) and Stop Rape in DRC (V-Day/Unicef) set up women as victims of the ‘dysfunctional’ culture of war and of male sexual power. Through empowering women to claim their rights, they are encouraged to change this culture. However, interviews on the ground reveal that the advancement of certain western notions of gender empowerment often clashes with the desire of the rape victim/survivor. Indeed, women survivors’ primary concerns to return to their community and to provide education, food and security for their children and other family members are far greater than the need to be acknowledged for the harm that has been done to them.[3]

During my fieldwork respondents stress that sexual violence destroys entire families and communities, not only women. Still, most programs provide relief to rape victims solely. One example is City of Joy, a centre next to Panzi Hospital supported by V-Day and Panzi Fondation that provides leadership training to women survivors of sexual violence. During the training, women and girls are taught notions of rights, psycho-therapy, dance, self-defense, English and French, …[4] After graduation they emerge as ‘real agents of development, human and women’s rights activists’ and return to their respective communities to become leaders of change[5]. Undoubtedly, these programs are important and can be live-saving. However, one respondent makes clear that this approach reinforces stigmatisation:

It [approach of taking away sexual violence victims to maisons d’ecoute] creates a rupture in the life of the female victim. When she returns to her community after six months, she struggles to adapt. It reinforces stigmatisation. She has been ‘privileged’ because she has been raped. When returning to her village, she often endures the aggression of the other villagers who have not been raped and have not benefitted from caresse internationale/ international care but who are nevertheless equally traumatised (Interview Bukavu, Sept 2012).

The attachment to the wound becomes the basis for her identity and in doing so, the rape victim risks marginalising and excluding herself from her family, community and often from her identity as a Congolese as well. The slogan of City of Joy Transform Pain to Power is symbolic here. By turning pain into power, the injured body of the female rape victim serves the function of marking the contrast between herself and the ‘empowered woman’. Rather than offering aid to female survivors only, ‘effective SGBV programming and policy must provide services to husbands, children and other family members in addition to survivors of rape. Women cannot truly heal if their support networks are broken’ (Kelly J. 2011). One respondent argues:

Consider the three parts [that have been affected by conflict]: individuals, family and community. They belong to the same ‘body’. Rape does not emerge as the biggest problem. Rape is on the list of many other problems that affect the community. Rather, it is the international community that turns the tables (‘renverse la carte’) and puts sexual violence as number one priority (Interview Goma, Oct 2012).

Is it not time to reverse the invisibility that humanitarian organisations manufacture (Kogacioglu, 2004) about their own role in sustaining renovated versions of colonial time and space and to focus on what the victim/survivor really wants?

A slightly edited version of this post appeared in Amani Itakuya Series #23 on http://christophvogel.net/2013/12/01/amani-itakuya-23-colonial-remembering-injured-bodies-and-current-humanitarianism/

Charlotte Mertens is a PhD 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.

References Cited

Bulletin de l’Union des Femmes Coloniales, Juillet 25, 1925, Musée Royale de l’Afrique Centrale, Tervuren.

Brown, W. (1995). States of Injury. Power and Freedom in Late Modernity, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

L’Eventail (1908). Musée Royale de l’Afrique Centrale, Tervuren.

Hunt, N.R. (2008). An Acoustic Register, Tenacious Images and Congolese Scenes of Rape and Repetition, Cultural Anthropology, (23) 2, 220-253.

Kelly, J.; VanRooyen et al. (2011). ‘Hope for the Future Again’: Tracing the effects of sexual violence and conflict on families and communities in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, Harvard Humanitarian Initiative.

Kogacioglu, D. (2004). The Tradition Effect: Framing Honor Crimes in Turkey. Differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies, 15(2), 118-151.

Mianda, G. (1995). Dans l’ombre de la ‘democratie’ au Zaire: La remise en question de l’emancipation Mobutiste de la femme. Canadian Journal of African Studies/Revue Canadienne des Etudes Africaines, 29(1), 51-78.


[1] Rustica, La Nation Belge in BUFC, Juillet 25, 1925.

[2] The term of ‘injured bodies’ and ‘wounded attachments’ is drawn from Wendy Brown’s (1995) States of Injury, Power and Freedom in Late Modernity.

[3] Interview Mamas for Africa, Bukavu, 2012.

[4] A six-months course to ninety female survivors is offered twice a year.

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