The Mute World (Politics & Society)

Bodied:The War Against Women in the Democratic Republic of the Congo

“I wonder why we take from our women, why we rape our women, do we hate our women?”

That infamous line from Tupac Shakur was the most intelligible thought I could muster after reading  several recent news reports stating that 48 women are raped in the Democratic Republic of the Congo EVERY HOUR. According to Aljazeera News, this current rate, which applies to women between the ages of 15 and 49 years old, is approximately 26 times higher than the previous estimate.

These numbers don’t include girls under the age of 15 or women over the age of 49 who share the same experiences.

Prior to reading these articles, I was somewhat aware of the conflict in the Congo. I knew that there had been several years of civil war and that the rape of women was a large part of the disaster taking place in the region. Coincidentally, in one of my English classes this past semester, we read Lynn Nottage’s play Ruined, which takes place in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in the midst of a civil war. The play centers around violence against women. So, reading these recent articles made me want to learn even more about what is going on.

I also had some knowledge of the history of the Congo. I had learned about King Leopold of Belgium during the “scramble for Africa” segment of my global history class in high school. I knew that like many other countries in Africa, the Congo was rich in resources, and that Belgium, like the other major Western European powers had taken advantage of this and had claimed the “Belgian” Congo. After that, my information was fragmented and scattered in the following pieces: Patrice Lumumba, Zaire, cobalt, diamonds, Mobutu, war, and rape, and I didn’t necessarily know if/how they fit together. (Global history class in high school never covered that part…interesting).

Courtesy of BBC News, I was surprised to learn that the effects of the genocide in Rwanda had spilled over into the neighboring country, which then-leader Joseph Mobutu (and if you don’t know how he came to power, we’ll just say Uncle Sam, but you should read about it) had named Zaire.  Apparently, after the Hutus were overthrown in Rwanda, many of them retreated to Zaire. They partnered with Mobutu, and began attacking Tutsis who lived there. The Tutsi government of Rwanda then began fighting the Hutus as well as the government officials of Zaire.

Mobutu was ultimately overthrown by the Tutsis, who appointed Laurent Kabila as president. Kabila then renamed Mobutu’s Zaire, The Democratic Republic of the Congo. Fighting between rival political and ethnic groups continued with several neighboring African countries joining the ranks. Eventually, Kabila himself was also overthrown. In the meantime, rival groups as well as those in power got rich off of the country’s resources while the rest of the population suffered, and the saga continues…

History lesson over. I know you’re probably thinking, “What does this have to do with 48 women being raped every hour?” That’s the big mystery. The articles and even the Lynn Nottage play suggest that soldiers use rape as a demonstration of power or as a method of control. One story even quotes a rebel soldier saying that they commit rape out of anger over their lack of (or consistently late) payment from their superiors. He justifies rape as a somewhat obvious and simple solution  to the “dry spell” that they experience while out fighting in the wilderness for long periods of time.

Women who have been raped are often considered to be “ruined”, hence the title of Nottage’s play. They become the shame of their families and are dismissed by their husbands. Several experts explain this response as a misguided sense of betrayal and/or the man’s way of coping with his inability to protect his wife. Regardless of respect for cultural differences, this is not acceptable to me.

Zora Neale Hurston once said that “black women are the mules of this world.” We carry the burdens that every one else cannot seem to bear. I’m sure that she is probably both saddened and repulsed to know that the women of the Congo are being treated like the used condoms of the world too, keepers of the tortured, failed, manipulated and wasted manhood, manifested in sperm cells,  of so-called soldiers, discarded in an attempt to assuage guilt or wrongdoing. I’m supposed to believe that a husband would disown his wife, making her even more vulnerable to harm, out of guilt over not being able to protect her from harm in the first place?

These explanations sell these men short. It is excruciatingly difficult for me to stomach–particularly in light of our history– that a black man could bring harm to or act against the interest of a black woman who could have been his mother, his sister, his daughter, his wife–that a king could violate or abandon his queen, just because. There is no level of frustration in the universe great enough for me to accept that.

“What world am I living in, then?” you ask. Sometimes, I don’t even know.

A better question is what we do about it. At the request of the Congo’s president, The U. N. Peacekeeping Mission (not that it was necessarily destined to be effective) is scheduled to leave at the end of this year. With two consecutive female Secretaries of State, you would think that this problem might have been addressed on a larger scale.

But is there a cure for internalized oppression? I don’t know. I do know that every time the clock ticks 1.25 times, another woman becomes the spoils of a supposed “victor” who is perpetually lost.

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