Stephen Lewis, the Congo, and rape as a weapon of war

This speech (major trigger warnings if you follow that link; generally horrifying stuff even aside from trigger issues) by Stephen Lewis about violence against women in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) is overwhelming. First, I have to say that it strikes hard to hear another Canadian UN figure essentially begging for the world (and the UN in particular) to take note of a situation in Africa, now that publicity surrounding Romeo Dallaire’s book and appointment to the senate, plus the film Hotel Rwanda have disappeared. When it was in the past, we could look back and shake our heads and deconstruct in preparation for, heaven forbid, next time. We could hold up heroes or tragic figures like Paul Rusesabagina or General Dallaire, we could develop a narrative that we could get comfortable with, and we could pat ourselves on the back for getting it now. Except that here it is, and here we are, again.

What’s worse is that it’s not even ‘next time’. We’re still on the same time. The crisis in the DRC has been largely the result of mass quantities of refugees fleeing the Rwandan genocide and continuing exactly the same violence that was going on in 1994. And yet:

What is so incredible about the inertia and passivity of the international community is the weight of evidence they had before them, and the total blank indifference with which the evidence was treated.

In 2004, Amnesty International produced a 39-page treatise titled Democratic Republic of Congo: Mass Rape Time for Remedies. It makes very tough reading. But its almost unimaginable that it would engender almost no response whatsoever…

As history has shown, those who could intervene, primarily the governments of the international community, remained impassive. It forces one to think of the meaning of misogyny.

Yeah, it does. That it should take this much and more to force that thought is what is genuinely ‘incredible’ to me. That these are the kinds of issues Eve Ensler, quoted in the speech, is working on publicizing at the same time as she’s being mocked as a self-centred, vagina-gazing Western feminazi is incomprehensible. That we can start this conversation on what the horrors of Rwanda showed us about white, racist indifference and not learn from it…fuck, I don’t know.

The speech by Lewis is brilliant beyond just the specifics, however. The situation in the DRC is horrifying in its scope, magnitude, intensity and details, but it is absolutely vital that we recognize that rape is used constantly as a war tactic. Stories about sexual violence in conflicts are often treated with disbelief, as aberrations, as something that can be changed within the system, rather than as the system itself. When we’re talking about casualties of war, we’re almost always talking about soldiers or fighters who suffer physical injury and mental trauma. And I would *never* say we shouldn’t talk about that, but to pretend that rape is not a major component of war, to use the nostalgic, chivalrous sounding ‘protect women and children’ rhetoric without being willing to talk about what they’re being protected from, is refusing to recognize the depths of what’s happening. We’re refusing to talk about it in a general sense, and we’re refusing to talk about the worst-of-the-worst of it in this specific case.

The big picture:

Allow me to say that what has come to pass in the eastern Congo is an inevitable result of marginalizing 52% of the worlds population, and permitting multilateralism to turn its back on gender equality. AIDS and rampant sexual violence are just two of the resulting pandemics; one doesnt need a crystal ball to predict that were in store for more. Thats why we so desperately need an international agency for women. There must be a voice, tenacious, indefatigable, unrelenting, well-financed, that never lets the world forget the indignities and human rights abuses visited on women.

This isn’t because things are just that fucked up in the DRC (though, obviously, they are). This is what happens when we talk about violence against women as private, domestic and individual, when we make ‘women’s issues’ lesser-than, and when we exclude women–both as conversants and topics–from discussions about the consequences of international politics and war. We will reach the point of things being just so goddamn horrifying we don’t even know how to talk about them anymore, and, apparently, even then we’ll be indifferent about it.

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