Rape. Re-rape. Gang Rape. But, really, who cares?

Date: January 10, 2011
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Three years ago I visited the Democratic Republic of the Congo for the first time. The country is home to the world’s bloodiest war since World War II, with more than 30 times as many deaths as last year’s earthquake in Haiti.

It’s also one of the world’s most unsafe places for women and girls. Women are raped and gang raped on a daily basis. Just last week reports from Médecins Sans Frontières told of a series of vicious rapes on New Year’s Day in South Kivu. Women were tied up, beaten and then raped, some in front of their children. What a way to ring in the New Year.

Few are paying attention.

While in DRC I had heard that a major TV journalist from an American news channel was in the East of the country filing stories. I was excited; too few media outlets are covering this epidemic. And it is an epidemic.

The world needs to wake up and he, I thought at the time, was the man to do it. As details emerged, however, I learned that this journalist was not there to report on the situation of women; his story was on gorillas. In a region of the world where a nine-year-old girl can tell you the story of the second time she was raped and the fourth surgery she underwent to repair the resulting damage, this journalist’s focus was on gorillas.

Sadly, I can’t blame him. Gorillas make great television; they’re cute, endangered, exotic and genuinely do need help. Who wouldn’t want to watch them on the six o’clock news? What makes the gorilla story even better is that we can easily help – give money now to save them and their habitat. We can sleep well at night knowing we’ve made a difference.

Conversely the story of a nine-year-old watching her father murdered while she and her mother were gang raped and her brothers abducted to be “soldiers” is not comfortably watched. The issue is difficult, complex and dark.

The exact number of women and girls who have experienced sexual abuse in the DRC is not known. In 2008, the United Nations Population Fund reported 15,996 registered cases of sexual violence across the country. And 65% of those were children, the majority girls – 10% were under the age of 10.

It’s widely accepted, however, that the majority of victims don’t report the attack meaning actual numbers are significantly higher. Victims know their chances at justice are slim; they fear rejection by their families and face expulsion from their communities.

Young girls who have been raped face not only the immediate physical and emotional consequences but the stigma that permanently affects their futures. Nicholas Kristof, a reporter with the New York Times, spoke with a village chief in the east of the country who said that the typical price for a bride in the region is 20 goats. If she’s been raped, however, the price is two goats, at most. Married women who are raped are regularly abandoned and divorced by their husbands. Men simply don’t want women who have been raped.

The issue isn’t restricted to the DRC. It is estimated that during Liberia’s 14-year civil war (1989-2003) as many as 75% of women were raped, many more than once. The majority of Tutsi women who survived the genocide in Rwanda were raped, raped with objects, held in sexual slavery or sexually mutilated. A 2009 survey of women who fled to refugee camps in Chad to escape violence in Darfur found that one third reported or showed signs of rape, though again numbers are thought to be higher. The statistics are appallingly similar in Sierra Leone, Uganda, Central African Republic, South Africa and elsewhere.

The numbers are shocking. So is the lack of public outcry.

When the earthquake hit Haiti the media couldn’t get there fast enough to photograph the destruction, the bodies, and the death. Ditto the tsunami. The global public demanded action. Celebrities held telethons. Millions of dollars were raised seemingly overnight.

If these crises showed the world’s ability for aid and compassion at its best, addressing rape as a weapon of war shows us at our worst. Nicholas Kristof writes of the DRC: “…no humanitarian crisis generates so little attention per million corpses, or such a pathetic international response.”

And there’s no simple answer as to why this is.

Perhaps we think the problem is just too big, there are too many people affected in too many countries and we don’t know where to start. Maybe it’s that the issue is too dark. Hearing stories of women raped and re-raped with foreign objects by boys young enough to be their grandchildren is too uncomfortable. It’s incredibly easy to change the channel, put down the newspaper or turn off the computer. Perhaps it’s that we increasingly value solutions that are easy and fast – give $50 now and save a baby gorilla.

The scope of the problem is huge. The stories are dark. The solution is neither easy nor fast. But these are exactly the reasons why we must do something.

Addressing the issue is, and will continue to be, complex. It requires the immediate provision of additional resources and services for victims; far more than are currently available. It requires long-term approaches to addressing the root causes of gender inequality. It requires putting pressure on governments to efficiently and adequately punish perpetrators. It requires working with local communities to reduce stigma so that victims feel able to speak up. It requires a stronger, more concerted international approach. It requires a global public that cares.

We need to show victims that we’re hearing their stories. We must show that we’re paying attention and demanding action. It’s time to let victims know that we will no longer ignore them; that we’re as interested in helping them as we are Haiti. As we are tsunami victims. As we are gorillas.

Nikki Whaites is the international program consultant at The Leprosy Mission Canada (TLMC). This article is part of the Gender Links Opinion and Commentary Service which offers fresh views on everyday news.


0 thoughts on “Rape. Re-rape. Gang Rape. But, really, who cares?”

gugu says:

thank you for shedding the light

these are very sad stories,when you listen to those stories or watch the videos its the same thing happening to a number of women and young girls over and over again. such issues should be brought to the public eye, mzansi magic on dstv is looking for those kind of issues that are affecting the african society. it could be a good platform. i am so disgusted by the reasons that those men give of why they are raping those women…
God hear us

lila says:

Thank you for informing us about these sad stories.I think that these type of articles should be spread in the whole world to make people aware about the jungle world that we are living.
I am really shocked.
There is no more respect and moral values.
But we better dont forget about the ONE who is watching us everywhere.

Loga Virahsawmy says:

This is a really great story that we do not heard often. I would like to congratulate the writer and encourage others to write this kind of story so as to encourage women to break the silence

nadia says:

these stories are a part of our every day life, so much so that we as woman take it as ordinary behaviour, its as if nothing can be done to prevent these, coz the most difficult issue is that these rapes occur within our own homes, own communities. we are not safe, anywhere an neither are our kids an in this day an tym this should long not av been an issue!! the courts are tooo lenient an therefore the pepetrators are not scared! maybe if the death penalty was reintroduced just for rapists, we could sleep more peacefully, maybe

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