Sexual Assault In Congo: Activists Speak Out

Lisa Shannon became an activist in Africa after watching a moving episode of The Oprah Winfrey Show. Alice Walker has played a key part in the feminist movement for years. Recently, they shared their thoughts on rape in the Congo.

Both women have books coming out this month. Shannon's, titled A Thousand Sisters, documents her trip to the war-torn country and her efforts to raise $50,000 to sponsor women in Congo. She left her house, her job, and her fiance to help the victims of rape find their voices and raise awareness internationally about the continuing violence. After describing a particularly brutal attack - the story that "sticks with her" - she points out that many people seem to view the war as over:

There have been many times I've heard people frame Congo like it's post-conflict. Congolese people find that idea really offensive. I've talked to a number of women who have been raped by the Congolese army. Security is all relative and things may shift in terms of what militia is doing what at any given moment.

Even more disturbing than our relative blindness is the tendency to view rape as somehow "cultural," as though it is inherent to "tribal" Africans. Shannon calls this viewpoint "fundamentally offensive and categorically inaccurate." She continues,

It's a place that we tend to go when people hear about situations like that. A critical piece of the story is left out. I heard stories about a militia holding a gun to a man's head and telling him to rape his own child or sister. And he chose to be killed instead. When you start talking about rape in Congo being "cultural," there's no way a culture that celebrates rape could produce men like that. Here are people living through the worst violence the world has seen since World War II, and not only do we ignore it but then we hurl on top of it this assertion that "it's just who you people are."

Like Shannon, Walker (pictured) has gathered the stories of many victims, which she publishes in her new book Overcoming Speechlessness: A Poet Encounters the Horror in Rwanda, Eastern Congo and Palestine/Israel. Walker reports "falling ill" from hearing about the vicious crimes and ongoing violence in Rwanda and the Congo. But in Walker's parlance, falling ill appears to be another phrase for waking up:

My responsibility is to witness and to share what I witness. It's up to the reader to do whatever they like. If they fall ill, that's where we are in the world. Things are so horrible that if you don't fall ill, it's a wonder, isn't it? So I don't feel responsible for whatever happens to them. I think that I'm responsible for what I'm supposed to be doing about the problem.

Fortunately, Shannan and Walker both offer ways for the average American feminist to help. Shannon requests that people start sponsoring Congolese women, which will in turn help support their children and halt the violence for the next generation. Walker speaks highly of programs like microfinance, that specifically target women, partially because women are more likely to give the money back to the community. The problem is huge, but as Walker points out,

Everybody has something. I don't buy the idea that unless you have a platform, you don't have anything to say. Because all these horrors, in some way or another, are connected to us. They're connected to our thoughts and to our feelings and ultimately to our politicians. So we have many things that we can do. We can sit at home and write books, we can make phone calls, we can use our computers. There's no end to what people can do.

From Oprah To Congo: One Woman's Attempt To Save Thousands [Time]
Interview: Alice Walker On Violence, Peace, And Compassion [Feministing]