New Congo Rape Statistics Inspire Competitive Headlines, Not Much Else

by Cara on May 12, 2011

in Africa, class and economics, human rights, International, media, misogyny, paternalism, patriarchy, race and racism, rape and sexual assault, violence against women and girls

A new study about the ongoing rape epidemic in the Congo has some rather terrifying statistics to offer. According to USA Today, 420,000 women are raped in the DRC every year.

Or, if you ask the Boston Globe, 1,152 women are raped every day. The Guardian reports that 48 women are raped every hour. And the Sydney Morning Herald ups the ante even further by putting the number at one rape every minute.

Even if all of the varying numbers did add up just so, I can’t be the only one wondering when exactly this ongoing campaign of sexual terrorism against women turned into a competition over which Western newspaper could write the most shocking headline. Nor can I refrain from asking what, exactly, is the magic number of rapes that will suddenly make us care? Would the headlines still be blaring if it were 30 rapes an hour? Is one rape every one and a half minutes just too few that the numbers needed to be fudged and made even more sensationalistic? Do we, as Western observers, care more now than we would if the number were actually one rape every five minutes?

Do we care now? Will the subject merit our true attention? Will we suddenly start listening to Congolese survivors? Are we ashamed for not having listened more closely before, for not believing the full magnitude when women were already telling us the truth? Do we feel better now that a U.S. organization has officially verified their lived experiences? Or will we remain indifferent until the numbers hit two rapes every minute? Five rapes every minute? One every second? Where precisely is the cut off point for compassion and a sense justice? How many women must be raped before we start to care enough to look at the causes? How high do the numbers have to be?

I am in no way trying to suggest that these numbers do not matter. Nor am I arguing that they are not horrific, that they do not deserve attention, or that headlines on the topic are unwarranted. What I’m condemning is the objectifying and imperialistic tendency towards disaster porn. What I’m criticizing is the refusal to engage with the issue of violence in the Congo in an in-depth and ongoing basis that puts these numbers in context, and the decision to instead resort to pearl-clutching headlines designed to shock Western readers with information we already had and will continue to ignore.

I’m also making clear that the response to this extremely extended crisis would look a lot different were it occurring somewhere other than sub-Sahara Africa. It’s not that the media takes most rape seriously, or that even the most privileged rape survivors are immune to rape apologism, victim-blaming, and indifference — this entire blog is a testament to these things not being true.

But on the one hand, that is precisely the point. These same newspapers that report these numbers with horror and very little background or analysis will tomorrow resort to shaming and casting doubt on rape victims from their own communities. Tomorrow, when it is no longer convenient to feign interest in rape, it will be back to business as usual. Tomorrow, lines will be drawn between the “date rape” that so many women needlessly whine and exaggerate about and the “real” rape that is downplayed by taking it seriously — after all, what about those women in the Congo?

Indeed, the part of this study that has been the most ignored and will continue to be pushed to the margins is the fact that this study shows higher numbers than others, in large part, because it includes rape by intimate partners instead of only rape committed as a tactic of war — a fact that makes the situation look a lot more similar to the one in countries where most don’t consider rape to be a big problem.

And, on the other hand, while the shaming and ridicule of rape victims is ubiquitous in the U.S. and other Western countries, some victims are indeed always more valued than others. We wouldn’t have to wait until the number of rapes hit “one every minute” before we started to care, if a large portion of those victims were white, cis, economically privileged women — at least, not if those rapes were in large part being committed within the context of war and with the level of violence we’re seeing against Congolese women. We wouldn’t have to wonder whether one every minute is actually going to be enough to cause real concern. We would know that there would be outrage.

But women who are black, who are poor, who are from countries labeled “third world” always fall towards the very bottom of hierarchy of rape victims who will gain Western attention. We in developed Western nations can and will ignore their plight because we have constructed them as less than women, less than human. We can simultaneously tut-tut at the atrocity and turn away from it because it is what we expect from those men we have culturally constructed as inherently barbaric, because it’s what we believe the women have come to expect, too.

And we can ignore our role — the role of industrialized nations and of consumers, especially in the U.S. We can look at the numbers and think it is “them” instead of “us.” We who aren’t living in the Congo can refuse to ask the question of why there is so much rape and assume that it has something to do with “lesser” cultures instead of so much to do with our own. We can side-step questions of rape culture and imperialism and colonialism and economic racism and consumer culture. We can forget to ask why we ignored earlier opportunities to ask hard questions and demand change.

We, we reading these headlines divorced from the context in which the news was created, can read “one rape every minute” and exclaim “those poor women!” without wondering why we didn’t care before someone made the headline sufficiently eye-grabbing, and without demanding accountability from ourselves now.

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{ 7 comments }

1 cim May 13, 2011 at 3:11 am

Agreed. And if the journalists had any idea of the rate of rape in their own countries they wouldn’t consider “42/hour” shocking at all (the real figure – as the study makes clear – is massively higher; as you say, we knew that already)

The rate in the UK, where I live, is over 20/hour … so my first thought on seeing those headlines was “that low? No chance”. The US rate – because of it’s much larger population – will be higher than the fake DRC rate that makes the headlines. No-one expresses those countries’ rape rates that way in the press – it’d be too much of an admission that there is a severe ignored problem – and DRC is far far worse.

“We can side-step questions of rape culture and imperialism and colonialism and economic racism and consumer culture.”

This.

2 cooper May 15, 2011 at 12:37 pm

I’m happy to see someone outside the foreign and public policy arena recognizing this.

3 Katrina May 17, 2011 at 9:40 am

I have to get this off my chest.

It’s maddening that most people only see women rape victims in these stories. It’s rare when a rape statistic will admit that most of the victims questioned where under the age of 18 (or 12 in the US) when they were raped. It’s even more rare when the same statistic will admit that some women are raped more than once in each attack and sometimes have various rapists throughtout their lives. All of these ‘sensational’ headlines are ridiculously whitewashed.

Do most people seriously think that all of the Congo rapes only happened to females? Do they honestly believe that all the rapists waited until their female target came of age? Do they think that when the female rape victim is of age she has no or will never have any children who will be indirectly affected by their mother’s rape truama? Do they not realize that women are raped in public to shame them and destroy a community’s morale? Do they think all the victims were vaginally raped by a penis? I just can’t take any headline that acts like nothing but basic rape happens only once per unmarried, childless, adult female.

I know this article is focused on the fact that the adult female victims are being ignored, and that pisses me off just as much. I just hate that these headlines try to be ‘sensational’ by making every single rape victim seem like an adult female who is never ganged raped or raped more than once during her entire life. If the newspapers really want to turn heads, bring attention to ALL the victims and how often each victim is raped and by how many attackers. Then general public will begin to really understand why rape is horrible and should be stopped.

4 Tori May 22, 2011 at 12:49 pm

Thanks for this, Cara.

The tendency of of the media to reduce the atrocities in the Congo down to numbers (48 rapes an hour, 1 a minute) also reminds me of the oft-quoted obervation of Stalin’s, “A single death is a tragedy; a million is a statistic.”

It seems to me that if the western media showed appropriate concern for rape victims in the Congo they would not just focus on the numbers that seem overwhelming (if the problem is that big readers may think that anything they do couldn’t help that much anyway) but also like it must be part of the culture that you rightly point out that we have been acculturated into believing is “inherently barbaric.” If we want to stop these atrocities, readers may think, we would have to change the entire culture.

A more effective means of getting people to work towards ending rape in the Congo would probably be to profile how individual people have been affected and get readers to empathize with an individual on a human level before making it a problem of overwhelming, seemingly cultural proportions. We should care about rape victims because they are people and we should empathize with their plight on a human level. Each rape victim is not just number 47 out of 48 this hour, she or he is an individual who has had a violent, unforgiveable crime committed against her or him.

5 nelle May 29, 2011 at 8:17 pm

Sickening. Wherever there are conditions where rule of law are tenuous, there will be widespread rape.

When it comes to the US acting in the Congo region, we have a problem. How does a nation that bogged itself down in two war zones and now dabbles in a third act in a region with difficult access? The US has effectively deployed and depleted its resources elsewhere, precluding it from acting in all but a very limited way. And of course, there is the elephant in the room politicians will never admit exists, that is, making decisions based on that oil thing.

This is a world problem, and the world is disinclined to act. I wish I had a potential solution to offer up, but I don’t.

6 Debbie June 1, 2011 at 11:21 pm

Does anyone know of any way to help?

7 Kristie July 2, 2011 at 6:05 pm

Debbie,

YES! I volunteer with an organization called A Thousand Sisters, founded by Lisa Shannon who wrote a book of the same name. This organization is all about how women here in the West, no matter our backgrounds, can play a major role in ending violence against women in Congo and in other places around the globe that the world has nearly written off. Women activists played a key role in passing the Dodd-Frank Act last year requiring companies to source their minerals acquisition (conflict minerals trade being a major player in the continued rape of women in Congo). Women activists are also in the forefront of calling for the appointment of a Special Envoy to Congo to help marshal the disparate resources and focus funding in areas that really will bring about peaceful resolution in Congo (another thing needed to end the rape of Congolese women). Go to http://www.athousandsisters.org to find out specifically what you can do!

On a side note, A Thousand Sisters worked with the authors of the Congo rape statistics study to get it published as the study had sat for several years with NO press interest whatsoever. While I agree that it shouldn’t matter if it’s one rape victim or one million, the point of publishing these results was to bring awareness to a larger population of what is happening each and every day in Congo. And further, to get people in the West to act. To demand from our governments that they tie continued aid to Congo with real results on the ground. To demand from our corporations that they do not feed the conflict by paying brutal rebel forces for the minerals they need to make our newest gadgets and toys. To demand from the leading aid organizations on the ground in Congo that they report real statistics and real results, and not continue to minimize what is one of the worst humanitarian crises of our generation. It shouldn’t have to come to this, but it does. Now it’s up to all of us to do something.

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