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Interview: Is there too much focus on sexual violence in the Congo?

On Monday this week, Laura Heaton published an article in Foreign Policy about the mass rape of women in the Congolese jungle town of Luvungi in late July and early August 2010. Heaton’s reporting suggests that that the rape figures were exaggerated, and that in general sexual violence has received far more funding and attention than other humanitarian needs in the eastern Congo––she reports that the 1,4 million displaced people in 2011 only received half as much aid as rape victims, and that NGOs dealing with sexual violence in South Kivu had grown from 10 to 300 in ten years.

Q: The choice of anchoring the article in the Luvungi case is controversial––the United Nations published an extensive report suggesting 387 people had been raped, which has been supported by Human Rights Watch and the United Nations Group of Experts. The International Medical Corps, which you criticize in your article, has also responded to your article in the pages of Foreign Policy. How do you respond to this criticism?

A: Yes, it is indeed controversial. When I first visited Luvungi with a Congolese colleague while we were in the area doing other research in 2011, I was instantly skeptical of what local sources we spoke to told us about how the incident had actually transpired, because the accounts diverged so much from the established narrative about the event. But as I spent time talking to people there I found it interesting that an entirely different explanation about the incident existed that had never even been hinted at in the public reporting. This prompted me to look more closely at where the actual source of the public narrative was, and all the news coverage, U.N. investigations, and NGO reports had used one account as the starting point: IMC’s numbers.

When I asked IMC back in April 2011 about how they had come up with their numbers, their staff member explained very openly that the numbers were unconfirmed because they were based on self-reporting. As a medical aid group, IMC, quite understandably, isn’t in the business of trying to forensically verify whether the person who comes to them seeking assistance was truly victimized in the way she/he said she/he was. If they ask for medical care, they receive it. But where the reporting on Luvungi gets muddled is that the numbers that IMC gave to the media weren’t most often presented as unconfirmed stats, nor was there any impression that the count could possibly be smaller; IMC’s figures were typically presented as a low estimate, and over the course of several weeks the numbers mounted. IMC explains the growing numbers as the result of victims feeling more comfortable coming forward. All of my local sources independently explain that since people increasingly saw that the entire focus in the aftermath of what had been a terrible attack — in which people lost all of their belongings and food stocks — was on the victims of rape, the most likely way to ensure you didn’t get left out of any aid response that might come was to say that you too were a victim of sexual violence.

As I mention in the final section of my FP piece, one woman in Luvungi explained that there was also an interest among members of the community to go along with this narrative, because it would mean that the women who truly were raped wouldn’t be ostracized. Several other civil society sources had given me the same explanation, attributing this decision to the local elders. “Once the gardiens de coutume [elders] have made that decision, you can’t say anything different,” one civil society leader explained to me.

But in short, what was striking as I started looking into the incident was that all of the international groups that reported on Luvungi took IMC’s account as a given and wrote their reports from there; no one questioned, at least publicly, whether IMC had gotten the original story right, even though IMC readily admits that they weren’t attempting to confirm cases included in their count.

Q: The broader point you are making seems less controversial––there has been enormous attention to sexual violence, and this seems to have had some perverse consequences. Can you explain what some of the unintended side-effects of this campaigning has been? Pundits have suggested that the focus on SGBV has deprived funding from other humanitarian programs and have even argued that it has given incentives to armed groups to rape to gain notoriety and leverage.

Several academics have spent a great deal of time looking into these issues, including Severine Autesserre (Columbia University), Maria Eriksson Baaz (Nordic Africa Institute), and Maria Stern (University of Gothenburg). Nynke Douma and Dorothea Hilhorst, who wrote the 2012 Wageningen University paper entitled “Fond de commerce?” compiled multiannual budgetary statistics from humanitarian donors pooled funds and compared how funding for various themes (IDPs, water/sanitation, security sector reform, sexual violence, etc.) is allotted. I included in my FP piece their findings about how sexual violence funding compares, for instance, to security sector reform funding (SSR is half as much) and the peace building trust fund (sexual violence funding is nearly half as large).

To give you one specific example of the impact, Douma and Hilhorst drew some very interesting and troubling conclusions about how the disproportionate focus on prosecuting sexual violence crimes is skewing much needed judicial reforms. Drawing on the insights of two Congolese lawyers, they produced an analysis of forty sexual violence case files. This review, supplemented by interviews, led them to conclude: “Under pressure to combat impunity, […] an increasing number of suspects are (sometimes innocently) convicted on the basis of flawed proof.” They didn’t seek to determine whether suspects were indeed guilty of the crime for which they were accused. Instead, they assessed whether the convictions had the necessary legal backing to be valid. Of the 19 convictions, they found that half did not.

“It is remarkable from our case studies that cases that result in release are much better argued by the judges than the cases that result in conviction,” they wrote in their 2012 paper, noting that some of their interviewees indicated that judges feel pressure to defend why they decided to release a suspect. Quoting one source, Douma and Hilhorst wrote: “If a presumed perpetrator of sexual violence is found not-guilty by the court, the media reports on such cases with disgust and incomprehension, influencing public opinion to believe that all suspected perpetrators should be convicted no matter what.”

Q: Don’t you think that the campaign against rape in the Congo has been able to galvanize international attention and pressured diplomats to focus on broader issues in the Congo? In other words, just as you argue that this campaign has had negative side-effects, one could argue the opposite: that it has had positive side-effects. 

Absolutely. The fact that former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton personally made a point of visiting eastern Congo, in spite of the security risks, during her August 2009 Africa trip, is a testament to how the focus on sexual violence has generated much needed attention. Clinton visited Heal Africa hospital, met with rape survivors in a refugee camp on the outskirts of Goma, and announced $17 million in funding to fight sexual violence, so it’s clear that what moved her to visit the region was her concern in particular about the horrifying accounts of violence against women. And her visit raised awareness about the conflict more broadly too because it helped show that among the many challenges the region and the continent faces, eastern Congo should be a priority for the international community.

So yes, the particularly riveting and emotional stories about rape in Congo are very important to highlight, in and of themselves and because they can be an important entry point for galvanizing concern and interest in Congo. Of course, the ever-present challenge for advocacy is getting people (especially donors) to engage in addressing the root causes after you’ve sparked their interest.

Q: What lessons about reporting on the Congo have you been able to draw from your investigation? How should campaign groups and journalists deal with the question of sexual violence?

One of the main takeaways for me, which I hope I’ll always keep in mind while working as a journalist, is the danger of accepting, with few questions, a story that fits our preconceptions about how various actors will behave and who to trust. I spent a long time working on this story, which was really a luxury, and given the demands of the journalism industry (shrinking budgets, correspondents expected to cover dozens of countries), the reality is that we have to get the story quickly and often rely on second-hand accounts.

I’ve taken some heat — and I knew I would — about a line in my piece about an instinct I had during some interviews on my first trip to Luvungi that the women my Congolese colleague and I spoke to, at the insistence of village elders, may not have been honest with us. On my last visit for this story, I learned that two of the three women (and possibly the third as well) had been evacuated from Luvungi, along with four other elders, by ICRC, in 2012. Local civil society sources explained that the community had grown frustrated and hostile after all of the attention didn’t lead to the assistance people had expected, and these six were blamed because they had been the gatekeepers of the story — the people that any outsider would meet with first. “People wanted to kill them,” said one activist, “because they sold us.”

And so it seems that my colleague’s impression that they had been “coached” or that the stories had been rehearsed pans out. Obviously an instinct is just a starting point, but it’s worth pausing to consider, because, as in this case, it can lead to a host of questions that were nowhere on our radar when we first arrived in the village.

There’s no question that sexual violence is a huge problem in Congo. Through this research I was struck by how little focus is being devoted to the underlying causes of sexual violence and in particular, the very troubling role civilians play in perpetrating the majority of attacks. And while this is openly discussed in eastern Congo, for some reason it’s a reality that many Western donors and NGOs are less interested in tackling — or even acknowledging. But doing so, in part through prompting from journalists, seems like an important starting point for actually ending the problem.

Laura Heaton is a Kenya-based freelance journalist and consultant at the Enough Project.

Posted by Jason Stearns at 1:25 AM

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