NAI researcher critical of rape report

Comments on Article in the American Journal of Public Health, Estimates and Determinants of Sexual Violence Against Women in the Democratic Republic of Congo” in the American Journal of Public Health

Maria Eriksson Baaz, researcher at the Nordic Africa Institute, and the School of Global Studies, University of Gothenburg

Maria Stern, Associate Professor, the School of Global Studies, University of Gothenburg


Q: Why are you critical of the report?
A: First, this is no new data. The report is based on the DHS data from 2007, which is already known. The authors then did some additional statistical analysis. So there is nothing new and the interpretation of this old data is highly questionable. We also think that reports claiming to say anything about the real levels of rape in the DRC should be read with great caution, given the extreme difficulties in collecting such statistics. This caution is not the least warranted in relation to this DHS study.

One of the main problems with this report is also the interpretation of the data. Some interpret the high levels of intimate partner sexual violence also in non-conflict areas as evidence that “the conflict in the east has produced a rape pandemic of astronomical proportions” manifested in high levels of sexual violence in non-conflict areas. Such conclusions are extremely simplistic and reveal a very limited understanding of the DRC context, which is characterized by a lack of infrastructure and communication between areas. In order to make such a claim on scientific grounds one needs to have data showing that in areas not affected by the conflict there have been attitudinal and behavioral changes in relation to sexual violence that can be attributed to conflict related sexual violence in the East.

Q: Why is it so difficult to get reliable data on rape in the DRC?
A: There are many different reasons for this, such as the lack of coordinated reporting and the inaccessibility of many areas due to limited or inexistent infrastructure.

Problems often emphasized - also in this report - are stigma and shame, which are manifested in a reluctance to report sexual violence. This is surely a problem. But with the particular focus on and funding to assist victims of sexual violence in combination with extreme poverty and a lack of basic health care and social services, you also have the opposite (particularly so in more urban areas where people know that being a rape victim facilitates access to health care): people presenting themselves as rape victims hoping to access basic health care and other services.

Another difficulty is connected to the need to have an understanding of norms and concepts related to gender and sexuality in order to the phrase questions and make an informed interpretation of responses. A further problem here is that gender norms vary a lot from one part of this very diverse country to the other. For example, the question posed in the survey “has anyone ever forced you to have sexual relations with you against your will?’’ will surely be answered in different ways depending not only on how the question is understood but on prevailing norms. In some areas where ideal female sexuality is connected to strong notions of chastity, there will probably be more women answering yes to this question, since that would be interpreted as the proper answer for “a good woman”. A woman answering no to this question risks being seen as a morally depraved woman. But in other areas it is different. 

The report does highlight an often neglected area of concern, namely that sexual violence is indeed a problem within the home and between spouses; although again, it is problematic to simply attribute such violence to armed conflict related rape as cancerous epidemic.   By framing the data as a contribution to understanding rape as a ‘weapon of war’ in the Congo, the article and its media attention mask that which potentially could be a welcome addition to an over-simplified and sensationalized story of a complex and tragic phenomenon.

Q: Is there too much focus on sexual violence?
A: Yes. Or a better way to put it is that other crucial – and interconnected – areas and types of violence do not get enough attention. The fact that now Congolese women may feel forced to present themselves as rape victims in order to access basic health care and other services is one aspect of this. But for us the most important argument supporting the critique of a singular focus on sexual violence are the voices of many Congolese women organizations themselves. Many complain about what is described as outsiders and donors’ exclusive interest in sexual violence and lack of interest in supporting other areas, such as maternal health care, women’s economic power, political participation, etc.

While the global attention on sexual violence is important and necessary, we need to realize that this attention also reflects our fascination for the exotic and spectacular, and fits well into our preconceived images of Africa and the Congo. Also, engagement in this issue has become lucrative, a source of attention, good-will and resources not only for international donors, local and international NGOs, journalists, politicians etc. but also for researchers (like ourselves). As Jina Moore astutely observes, the press release for this scientific article “reads a little desperate; you can almost feel it begging for a journalist's distracted attention by getting as many numbers in front of her as possible…Photos of Congolese women who have been affected by the conflict are available upon request." (

Problematically, researchers working with sexual violence receive both funding and attention while researchers working with less fashionable issues such as child and maternal mortality face a very different situation.

Q: What type of actions are needed? 
A: As highlighted above, a lot is already being done, particularly so with regards to supporting victims of sexual violence. More preventive measures are needed. These would include various measures such as a comprehensive Security Sector Reform and support to the justice sector to end impunity. In all these efforts sexual violence must be treated as part of—not as separate from—other violence.

The international community has and continues to intervene in many different ways.  Our research suggests that sexual violence must be seen as part of a complicated web of violent power relations and structural root problems; its redress, in contrast to what seems to be assumed in media reports, will certainly take time.

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