This week, as Hillary Clinton visits no fewer than six African nations, American media outlets are running a spate of stories about the ongoing problem of sexual assault as a weapon of war in one of those countries: Congo.
First up, Matthew Clark from the Christian Science Monitor has a piece about the work DC-based non-profit Women for Women International is doing to educate men about the consequences of rape to Congo and the women in their own lives. It includes a video segment incorporating interviews with the husband of a rape victim, a rapist and a police officer who spends her days trying to imprison rapists, only to see them bribe their way out of punishment. Women for Women International focuses on Congolese men not just because some of them are the perpetrators, but because they are the leaders of the society.
"While we are an organization that values investment in women, you have to engage larger communities," says Lyric Thompson, policy analyst at Women for Women. "In many places we work, the community leaders are men, so we use men's position of influence. Our program in Congo is a model for other programs. It involves a huge paradigm shift from approaching men as the perpetrators – the enemy – to engaging them as allies; as fathers, sons, brothers."
It's a similar approach to those used by groups in the U.S. like Men Can Stop Rape. Both groups seek to inculcate in men empathy for and identification with women, as studies show that rapists often don't think of their victims as people. Women for Women International's consciousness-raising workshops — which they and the participants refer to as "sensitization" as opposed to education — are led by men, as their experience is that listening to women talk about the effects of rape on them as individuals or as a group is less effective.
But sensitization has its limits in a society ruled by corruption. Maj. Honorine Munyole, who leads a police battalion focused on sexual assault, sees those limits every day.
Still, 217 suspected rapists were arrested last year, and 20 so far this year: But most escape justice by paying off judges. And, Munyole says, each of them threatened her and her staff: "We can't work after 6 p.m., when it starts getting dark. Sometimes they throw stones at us. They broke my glasses with a stone."
Munyole had to transfer her daughter to a new school after she was threatened with rape because of her mom's work. "The perpetrators need to be punished, but there are always calls to release them," she says.
Even the "sensitized" soldier of the story seeks to mitigate the horror of rape in the Congo, claiming that some of the women they raped were spies, or the wives of enemy combatants.
But even as men blame women — or even lack of access to consensual sex — on the one hand, reports of soldiers raping men continue to skyrocket. Jeffrey Gettlemen reports in the New York Times that even though most men don't seek treatment or counseling for rape unless there are medical complications, 10 percent of the June rape reports to the American Bar Association's sexual violence clinic in Goma alone were from men.
According to Oxfam, Human Rights Watch, United Nations officials and several Congolese aid organizations, the number of men who have been raped has risen sharply in recent months, a consequence of joint Congo-Rwanda military operations against rebels that have uncapped an appalling level of violence against civilians.
Aid workers struggle to explain the sudden spike in male rape cases. The best answer, they say, is that the sexual violence against men is yet another way for armed groups to humiliate and demoralize Congolese communities into submission.
That is, of course, in addition to raping women, killing civilians, and looting and destroying communities.
In Congolese society, there is such a taboo on homosexuality that male rape victims are ostracized if their violations are discovered — they're often called "bush wives" — despite the fact that their part in the act is non-consensual. The stigmatization not only hurts male victims' psychological recovery, it can be deadly.
Aid workers here say the humiliation is often so severe that male rape victims come forward only if they have urgent health problems, like stomach swelling or continuous bleeding. Sometimes even that is not enough. Ms. Van Woudenberg said that two men whose penises were cinched with rope died a few days later because they were too embarrassed to seek help. Castrations also seem to be increasing, with more butchered men showing up at major hospitals.
Analysts blame the uptick in violence on the Western-supported joint Congo-Rwandan military operations designed to root out the last of the foreign and rebel fighters.
But Adam Hothschild in the New York Review of Books traces rape as a weapon of war and subjugation back far further than the start of the recent conflicts.
Unimaginably horrifying as ordeals like Kamate's are, they are all too similar to what Congolese endured a century ago. Rape was then also considered the right of armies, and then, as now, was how brutalized and exploited soldiers took out their fury on people of even lower status: women. From 1885 to 1908, this territory was the personally owned colony of King Leopold II of Belgium, who pioneered a forced-labor system that was quickly copied in French, German, and Portuguese colonies nearby. His private army of black conscript soldiers under white officers would march into a village and hold the women hostage, to force the men to go into the rain forest for weeks at a time to harvest lucrative wild rubber. "The women taken during the last raid...are causing me no end of trouble," a Belgian officer named Georges Bricusse wrote in his diary on November 22, 1895. "All the soldiers want one. The sentries who are supposed to watch them unchain the prettiest ones and rape them."
Forced labor also continues today. The various armed groups routinely conscript villagers to carry their ammunition, collect water and firewood, and, on occasion, dig for gold.
Lovely that — again — the "women" were causing the trouble by being too pretty to deflect rape. Then, like now, it was looked on as a substitute for sex, and not as a crime of subjugation and violence.
Kamate, mentioned above, is a three-time rape victim who runs a reporting and counseling program and was, earlier this year, brutalized for her troubles. She was raped after Ugandan forces tortured, eviscerated and killed her husband in front of her and her daughters; she was forced to lie in his viscera for her own rape. She started a shelter for women and children of sexual violence called The Listening House, where she takes in victims, refers them for medical assistance and keeps track — since the judiciary is unenthusiastic about punishing them — of the perpetrators. Rapists aren't so keen on her work.
The last time Kamate herself was raped was on January 22 of this year. The attackers, members of the CNDP (Congrès National pour la Défense du Peuple), a Tutsi-led rebel group that has since been integrated into the Congolese army in a new peace deal, were four soldiers who targeted her because they knew of the work she was doing. It is for fear of this happening again that she asks me not to use her real name. "After having raped me, they spat in my sex, then shoved a shoe up my vagina. When I arrived home I cried a lot and was at the point of killing myself."
Hothschild documents that the many amnesty efforts by the Congolese government to integrate rebel forces into the military has led the Congolese government to allow war crimes perpetrators, rapists and warlords into the halls of power and the officer corps, undermining efforts by groups like Women for Women International to sensitize men to the problems sexual violence can cause the entire nation.
In other words, Hillary Clinton — and the world — have a lot of work on their hands.