Beyond rape in the Democratic Republic of the Congo

Neema Namadamu
Neema Namadamu

Neema Namadamu

The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) is by many measures one of the world’s most difficult places to live.

Government instability, rebel attacks in the east, terrible health services and more contribute to an environment that some have gone as far as to call “hell on earth.”

Congolese activist Neema Namadamu launched a Change.Org petition late least year to call for the US to create a presidential envoy that will work with the United Nations and the African Union to help establish a peace process for the DRC. Crippled by polio at the age of two, Namadamu has emerged as a leading activist for women, children and the disabled in the DRC. She is joined by fellow women activists who are speaking out against the violence they face and to find inclusive solutions to the country’s problems.

“We know that we can create peaceful, sustainable communities in Congo through a holistic new model that ends violence, poverty, and the destruction of nature altogether,” she wrote in the petition.

Impressions about the DRC are far reaching  with the strongest images borne out of Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness. Conrad set what he saw as the savage middle of Africa against the civilized western world served as a form of justification for colonial rule. More than 100 years since publication, the ‘heart of darkness’ narrative still pops up when it comes to the DRC. Though the racist undertones that drove colonialism have subsided, the focus still is about how terrible life is in the DRC. The problems are subtle, but they persist.

One example is the state of reporting on the civil war and ongoing fighting in the DRC. One of the most disturbing elements of the violence, aside from the brutal murders and attacks, is the rate of rape. Sexual violence is a weapon of war wielded by rebels and Congolese military alike. However, that is not the whole story.

Researchers have uncovered that sexual violence is not necessarily a result of conflict. The roots go much deeper and further back. An article in Foreign Policy by Elizabeth Dickinson in 2011 showed how widespread rape traces back to colonialism.

In her recent book The Trouble with the CongoSéverine Autesserre mentions this explanation: that rape has been persistent in the country at least since Belgian colonial rule pillaged the country and instilled a style of government so extractive as to doom Congo to centuries of fighting back against its legacy. The Congolese government’s reaction, reported on BBC radio today, seemed to concur with that explanation: There was no “increase’ in rapes,” it said. It’s just that the way they are reported has gotten better. Rape, in other words, is persistent.

That means that solving the problem of sexual violence will require a complete overhaul of the DRC’s political systems. That is why Namadamu and other grassroots advocates are seeking out ways to stabilize the DRC through peace talks so that they can go about making community-level changes.

In a recent letter to a US journalist, Namadamu explained that the idea of rape goes much deeper into the numerous forms of violence Congolese women face each day. She responds to the question whether or not she has ever been raped.

In Congo we don’t use the word “rape”; we call it “violence.” For as women, we are raped a hundred ways every day; our dignity stripped, our value tarnished, our very personhood denied from the earliest age so that we can be violenced throughout our lives without there being any consequence. Surely, this reporter understands that the greatest defilement of one’s person is not what is done to the body. It’s not the physical damage generally speaking that takes your life. It’s that you are eaten alive as if you are a thoughtless being, and left to decompose in those life-stealing memories.

That is the daily grind of most who are born a girl in Congo. Every day it is emphasized that they are only a girl and as such, must serve every male’s whim. You can’t sit where they are gathered. You can’t speak when they are talking and if you are violated by one of them, they will handle the matter amongst themselves—a gift for your father and the debt is cleared.

Her response supports the reporting by Dickenson that violence against women is about much more than rape in war.

“My work is to create heaven for my daughter in a place called hell,” concludes Namadamu.

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About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.