Abigail Disney is a filmmaker, philanthropist and scholar. She produced the critically acclaimed Pray the Devil Back to Hell chronicling how Liberian women peacefully ended the civil war in their country.
In 2010 I was fortunate enough to go the DRC with the renowned peace activist Leymah Gbowee. We spent a week working with women activists from three different cities exploring the efficacy of women as of peace-builders and discussing the Congolese activists’ ideas for building a strong coalition of women to work in a coordinated way toward bringing peace to their country.
We were intrigued to see how difficult it was to get these activists to talk about their own views. At first we were perplexed—neither of us had ever found activists anywhere reticent to express their views on anything. But as the hours wore on we realized how seldom these women had ever in fact been asked for their views–by anyone. It was clear that our doing so generated a wariness in them that was hard for us to penetrate.
Whenever we ventured toward wartime sexual violence as a topic of discussion we found that tensions in the room tended to rise. One woman, sensing our confusion, finally made clear to us what was happening. She was tired, she said, of women and men from the global north probing them for the most lurid, sensational and graphic stories for their publications. It was enough to have to endure these traumas whether personally or by proximity, but to have to re-experience them again and again for the consumption of far-away readers who rarely actually did much in response was too much.
When it came time to list the problems of the DRC as these women saw them we had another surprise coming. To our amazement, not one of the three groups of women listed sexual violence as their top concern.
All of the groups listed it in their top five, along with education, economic development and better governance. There certainly was a diversity of issues expressed by the women, but there was unanimity in one. In all three cities, every single woman named “women’s political participation” as the most important and urgent issue their country needed to address in order to bring peace. Not rape. Not sexual violence.
This was a result none of us had expected, certainly, but now that I have seen similar responses from groups of women in conflict zones around the world I have come to believe that those of us in the international community have been missing a critical aspect of peace-building for a very long time.
Rape is not the problem. Rape is a symptom of the problem. And the answer is not to attempt to stop men from raping women but to categorically change women’s value and status in their communities. That may sound like an agonizingly long-term and slow strategy, and certainly with so many women suffering such desperate violence in so many places, a slow strategy feels like a weak and silly response.
But we did not come to this place overnight, and it is not in a night we will be able to bring ourselves out of it.
The fact is that everyone is talking about and for Congolese women, but very few people are talking to them. It is only very recently that they have become visible to those of us in the developed world, but as visible as they have become lately, they still are shockingly silent. Their silence is neither their choice nor their fault. For most first-world journalists they are more subject than object, there to be parsed and dissected, their problems ours to be solved, their
misery gawked at, their stories traded. The DRC has long been wracked by civil war. It has also been called the “rape capital of the world.” And so it stands to reason that if we want to understand what is driving the incidence sexual violence in war-time the Congo would be a logical place to turn. Rape has indeed been used as a tool of war there for most of this conflict.
But recently researchers have been surprised to discover that the incidence of rape far from the places where conflict is raging in DRC is also quite high. This suggests that sexual violence in war-time is more than simply a matter of guys with guns doing their worst to the women they encounter. Rather than disprove the idea that rape is a tool of war, this fact demands that we stop to consider that what happens in war time is often a grotesque amplification of what has already been the case in the same society well before that war ever broke out. Rape in war is a sign of a problem that is systemic and widespread and until the day that a woman can have a social value that is greater and deeper than merely sexual or procreative, until a woman is more than simple property, until women are fully represented in all the places where power is divvied up, then rape will always be a problem. And rape will always be a problem in more places than just the DRC. Or, for that matter, Africa.