guest post: gender and sexual violence in the DRC
Today I'm pleased to present a guest post from Serena Cruz and Rosan Smits, authors of a new policy brief on sexual violence in the DR Congo for the Clingendael Conflict Research Unit. They argue that effectiveness in the fight against SGBV in the Congo requires a better understanding of the gender dimensions of the problem:
Current efforts of the international community to combat rape in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) are often not critically responsive to the gender needs of men and women in the larger society. As a result, this can put a strain on the effectiveness of internationally supported programs targeting sexual violence. While this provocative claim may ruffle a few feathers, support can be drawn from research in the DRC that spanned almost six months.
Reflecting on this period of research and what we anticipated to find, it is not surprising we came the conclusions we did. Although, the issue of sexual violence has rightly been on the international agenda for several years, this ongoing attention has disproportionately hyped rape as a stand-alone effect from the war in the DRC. Even before getting to the ground, our intuition about ‘hyping’ was front and center. That is, we were conscious that when hyping occurs there is often little room for nuanced responses to overarching issues. Often, the greater the hype the less chances there are to address complicated and frequently hidden or ignored sub-problems. In the case of our research, our assumptions were founded. Yet, documenting this process as well as sharing our frustrations does little to address the problem. Instead, we believe it behooves us to not only put forth our concerns, but to also share recommendations about how to overcome this particular instance of the ‘hype’ effect.
In an effort to create a nuanced understanding of the issues related to sexual violence in the DRC, we developed a policy brief which can be found at the Clingendael Conflict Research Unit website. However, in this space we want to highlight our main findings and recommendations, which we believe offer insights about how to strengthen programmatic responses to the issue of sexual violence in the DRC context.
Our overarching conclusion is that sexual violence in DRC is gendered. Not only is this violence gendered in how it is performed, but also in how it can be fought against. Prevailing over gender related violence means dismantling the ongoing tensions between men and women related to prescribed gender norms, roles, and identities. In doing so, it is possible to achieve a gendered environment whereby women and man are mutually co-empowered. For policies, which support programs on the ground, this means not only providing direct assistance to survivors of rape, but also concurrently supporting the development of beneficial gender norms, roles, and identities of men and women in a (post-)war DRC.
We believe our research shows that in order to improve effectiveness in combating rape, the international community should address gender-related root causes of sexual violence by accounting for the narrative that describes rape in Eastern DRC; programmatic implications that indirectly maintain competition among women and men; and the (lack of) sensitivity in the international debate around the issue of sexual violence in the DRC.
In making these claims it helps to understand that first, gender-based violence is not only war-inspired, but also community-centered. Therefore, it is necessary to advance beyond the ‘rape as a weapon of war’ narrative and promote a more complex understanding of the gender-dimensions of sexual violence. Central to this is the notion that men and women’s sense of power is deeply connected to how gender is understood and enacted. As a result, the primary focus on assisting victims of sexual violence and punishing perpetrators should be complemented with a programmatic goal to transform gender norms through co-empowerment strategies.
Second, this understanding will have programmatic implications. In short, all programmatic pillars for combating sexual violence in DRC need to be urgently reoriented to incorporate opportunities for men and women to address ongoing values underpinning men and women’s roles. This will have consequences for how medical and psycho-social support strategies are designed; how women and men’s empowerment efforts can be further developed; how justice sector reform can be linked to gender-transformative actions on an individual and community level; and finally, how security sector reform strategies can be made more effective in combating sexual violence.
Last but not least, international political and public awareness of the gendered dynamics around rape is woefully limited. As a result, the occurrence of rape in DRC is framed as a consequence of war. Well, the bad news is that, sadly, rape is not only war-related. In order to allow for a more nuanced and comprehensive response to the gender crisis in the DRC we all have homework to do. This means mobilizing critically so as to extend the current understanding of the complexities of violence to those in charge of decision-making at the capital level.
By doing so we are responding to the question of whether or not the problem of sexual violence should be prioritized in the future. Our answer is a resounding “Yes, absolutely!” As for how can this happen? We believe the public must pressure donor governments about how to qualitatively support men and women in the DRC who are actively engaging in transforming oppressive gender norms. While this first step is ripe for moans and groans, it sure beats another overly planned tear jerking visit to a rape center, as well as considering that the public might have seen enough rape survivors (re)victimized by cameras, slogans, and incomplete measures to address the issue of sexual violence in the DRC.