Sexual violence as a weapon of war?

A new book in the Africa Now series

Sexual violence as a weapon of war? – A new book in the Africa Now series, by Maria Eriksson Baaz and Maria Stern. NAI researcher Maria Eriksson Baaz answers three questions about the book.

By addressing sexual violence in conflicts, is there a risk that too much emphasis is placed on the symptoms of war instead of its root causes?
There are no clear distinctions between symptoms and causes, in the sense that acts of violence, which we often perceive to be symptoms, also clearly feed into and perpetuate conflict dynamics. But generally, and as with other conflicts, one can say that in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), more attention is given to mitigating the suffering caused by the widespread violence than to efforts to address the complex root causes.  Focusing on the effects of particular acts of violence is much easier, and to some extent more immediately rewarding for the interveners themselves.

We think it is impossible and indeed quite undesirable to differentiate between kinds of violence by saying that one form is more serious or devastating than another. In the book, we problematise our presumptions about the effects of different types of violence. For example, simply assuming that rape is the worst type of violence that women in a war zone can be subjected to, without asking them, is highly problematic. This is also something that – as we show in the book – is reflected in discussions with women in the DRC. One of our conclusions is that outside interveners in the DRC, as in many other contexts, have been bad listeners. We have had a tendency to listen only to one part of the women’s stories, that part which interests us most, because it is spectacular and reflects our own assumptions.

In the book you use the concepts “rape tourism” and “commercialisation of rape”. What are these?

By “rape tourism” we refer to the endless stream of people and delegations that have travelled to the DRC to meet and listen to survivors firsthand. Meeting and talking to a “real” rape victim and visiting one of the big hospitals attending to them has become a “must stop”, “must see” for visitors to the DRC since 2008, in a similar way to “tourist attractions” in other settings.

By the “commercialisation of rape” we refer both to the ways in which engaging in the rape issue has become a lucrative source of attention and resources for a range of external actors, from donors,  international NGOs, politicians, journalists, to researchers like ourselves. But we also refer to the ways in which the massive attention given to (and the accompanying funding to combat) sexual violence has created a situation in which allegations of rape and the claiming of “rape victim” status have become increasingly entangled in livelihood strategies. Accusations of rape have, for instance, become a bargaining and extortion strategy involving a range of actors.

Is there an aspect of old colonial thinking in how development interventions are shaped in the DRC?
The expression “saving the brown women from brown men” was coined by Gyatri Spivak. It refers to the ways in which colonialism was also legitimised by the argument that the colonisers had a specific mission to alleviate the patriarchal oppression of the colonised woman. Describing colonised societies as particularly backward and oppressive towards women served a purpose. Along with the proclaimed need “to bring civilisation”, it not only provided the coloniser (both women and men) with a rewarding and quite erroneous self-image, but also worked to legitimise colonisation itself. As several post-colonial feminists have demonstrated, this rhetoric and logic have continued to shape development interventions in the Global South in the post-colonial era. And, as we show in the book, it is also currently reflected in external engagement in the DRC.

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