Ned Meerdink (DR Congo)

Ned Meerdink (Sos Femmes en Danger – SOSFED): Ned earned his Bachelors degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he studied humanitarian work in Central and Eastern Africa. After graduation, NED worked for human rights NGOs in the US and Congo. They included Mutuelle Jeunesse Active (MJA) in Sud Kivu. AP deployed Ned to Uvira, in South Kivu, in September 2008 to work with civil society organizations including Tunza Mazingira, Arche d’Alliance, and SOS Femmes en Danger. Ned launched the partnership between SOSFED and AP in 2009.

Rape in Congo: Not just a question of conflict

31 Oct

A recent report issued by the American Medical Association (AMA) has had me and SOS FED’s staff thinking about some possibly unexploited “entry points” in the fight against sexual violence in Congo. The AMA report revealed that 74% of reported rapes in the Kivus and Ituri Province in 2009 occurred during active combat. This is not surprising, as conflict breeds insecurity and vulnerability in a manner more potent than possibly any of the other factors of the rape epidemic in Congo under current scrutiny. It’s evident that when chaos takes root, the most vulnerable of the population, in Congo the women and children, suffer disproportionately. These cases represent three-fourths of the cases of rape in Congo.
However, SOS FED beneficiaries being interviewed by our field staff have begun to tell a different story concerning their vulnerability which draws a bit of our focus towards the remaining quarter of cases from the AMA study-the women being raped in areas where conflict isn’t a daily reality. While fighting occurs semi-regularly in SOS FED program areas (some areas worse than others), the majority of the rapes SOS FED beneficiaries report occur while they are pursuing the most mundane of daily tasks under relatively peaceful regional circumstances. Often, the rapes occur in broad daylight in villages deemed more secure than others in Fizi Territory. The beneficiaries report to us that cultivation, collection of firewood, and taking water from Lake Tanganyika have gone from predictable work to be done on a daily basis to frightening and risk-filled work. This forms a troublesome question to consider: Why exactly does the number of rapes continue to increase in areas where fighting has lulled, accounting for nearly a quarter of the cases of rape reported in eastern Congo in 2009?
One major factor to consider in answering this question is the presence of soldiers across eastern Congo, even in areas not directly involved in current fighting. Contrary to widespread perception of Congo, there are areas in which gunshots don’t regularly provide the evening soundtrack. Nevertheless, in these areas we encounter no shortage of FARDC troops. These soldiers have been brought up and trained in the Congolese military system in which impunity and lack of oversight are the norms. MONUSCO supports them with medicine, food, ammunition, but has not yet come to the point where monitoring of what they do with these materials occurs in any clear fashion. Thus, we see large brigades of underpaid, well-armed, soldiers not necessarily involved in defense (because of lack of a clear enemy or lack of a will to protect civilians) of a community. The stage is set in this way for even secure villages to be overtaken by sexual violence and other crimes against civilians as these soldiers not only lack a clear mission but also lack the oversight necessary to ensure that undisciplined soldiers do not feed off the population.
Civilian rape is possibly a more compelling point of interest in assessing the vulnerability Congolese women face, even when residing in more secure regions of the country. A recent study by the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative (HHI) shows nearly a 17-fold increase in the incidents of civilian rape reported to organizations working with victims of sexual violence between 2004 and 2008. One of the contributors to this study, which was conducted in South Kivu, commented that, “Before [rape] was like a gun in a war. Today, though things have cooled down, the mindset remains in people…” Thus, we see that rape has becoming increasingly normalized among civilians. If it’s true that violence begets violence, by the same logic rape begets rape. Civilians have not only viewed rape on an immense scale throughout the years, but also seen that very few violators are punished for their crimes. The international community has a controversial role in this regard; MONUSCO’s extensive support to the FARDC is on shaky ground given that nearly 80% of the rapes reported in the region occur at the hands of their troops. Does this not send the wrong message to soldiers and civilians alike across Congo?
It is possible that an undue amount of attention has been focused on the implications of the AMA study. If nearly 75% of rapes occur during active conflict, then a quarter of the rapes occurring in eastern Congo occur in areas enjoying periods of relative peace. For those hoping to stop sexual violence in Congo, this quarter of cases demonstrates a key point of entry. Steven Levitt noted in Freakonomics that arms are simply a way to upset the “natural order” of things, and nowhere is this more evident in Congo. A woman who knows her rights, knows how to stay safe, and does not expose herself to vulnerability-increasing behavior still will fall when it comes down to an armed man with an intent to rape. In a conflict-ridden Congo, this is a given despite the best efforts by NGOs and civil society groups.
Perhaps an emphasis on prevention (collective cultivation, education, rights training, etc.) among women in areas not rife with fighting is a means of eliminating the cases of sexual violence which represent the 25% of the non-conflict related rapes occurring across eastern Congo ever year. These cases being eliminated would surely represent the most significant reduction of sexual violence which has occurred in Congo since the epidemic came to be in the early years of the conflict.
Working to eliminate the 25% of cases occurring in non-conflict situations could have significant implications on the 75% of cases occurring in conflict. First, the empowerment of a group of women who otherwise would have been victimized forms a potent tool in the regional effort to eliminate sexual violence. Secondly, and more importantly, if and when the conflict in eastern Congo comes to a close, the prevention of rape in non-conflict situations will be valuable to ensure that civilian rape is curbed. It would be ill-advised to assume that rape in Congo will end because of the end of the conflict, given that numbers of civilian rape are on the rise.
This thinking has really informed our approach to sexual violence in Congo for 2011. We hope to stress prevention in areas where prevention can work. This is not to say that we ignore areas where conflict induced vulnerability reigns supreme, but means that we place equal value in the effort to prevent rape where possible through programs and education as we do in our effort to treat women who suffer rape in Fizi Territory’s more dangerous conflict zones. It is a fine balance, but focusing a bit on the 25% of cases which don’t occur at the barrel of a gun might make significant progress in the fight against sexual violence in Congo.

Ned Meerdink

Posted By Ned Meerdink (DR Congo)

Posted Oct 31st, 2010

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