DRC: Sexual Violence and Gender: From Peace to Conflict and Back Again

Monday, November 28, 2011
Gender Across Borders
Central Africa
Congo (Kinshasa)
PeaceWomen Consolidated Themes: 
General Women, Peace and Security
Sexual and Gender-Based Violence

More attention is being paid today to the inter-relationality between gender and war/conflict than ever before, raising interesting and often frustratingly confounding questions. For example, do the gender roles which dictate our wartime behaviour create a cyclical effect in which our behaviour in wartime further reinforces and defines our peacetime gender roles? Societies which experience more gender equality are less likely to be war prone, suggesting there could be a strong argument to be made for gender peacetime roles and gender wartime roles directly affecting or relating to one another. An evaluation of rape as a weapon of war in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) demonstrates that indeed this correlation exists.

Before beginning, it is critical to recognize that while the terms “gender” and “women” are often used synonymously when examining gender issues, men also have a gender-identity and failing to account for this will ensure your consideration of gendered issues in conflict is incomplete. Rape as a weapon of war has just as much of a gendering effect on men, whether the male in question is the perpetrator or the victim, as it does on victimized women. In fact, ignoring the direct relationship between rape, the gendering of men in wartime and the gendering of men in peacetime would create fundamental evaluation errors since I maintain that the use of rape as a weapon of war against any person is an act of delineating between “Man” and “Other”.

The great conflict which has raged within and across the borders of the DRC since the early 1990s has claimed more lives than any other conflict since World War II, with estimates coming nearer the six million mark everyday, it has also become a popular case study for political scientists and sociologists studying rape as a weapon of war, due to the extremely high instances of rape and its calculated nature. When a Congolese village is invaded by one of the twenty-five different fighting groups, village men are commonly killed or otherwise incapacitated so as to minimize the remaining villagers' ability to defend themselves. Those able-bodied men that are not immediately killed must often flee their village and hide to save themselves, while any woman or girl who is unable to elude their capture is often subjected to rape, sodomy, torture and/or captivity as a slave to their captor. Rape in this context is being conscientiously used not only as a weapon by which to devastate an entire community, but also as an effective means for reinforcing what it means to be “Man” and what it means to be “Other”. Yet, it is the gendered society in which this conflict operates that has defined the actions, thoughts and arguably biological responses of the people within it. Therefore, a cyclical paradox exists in which rape as a weapon of war within the DRC is occurring because of established and accepted gender roles but at the same time further reinforces said gender roles upon a conflict's completion.

Examining nearly any society across the world makes it easier to understand why rape as a weapon of war is becoming an increasingly normalized part of conflict. Male dominance over women, within both the public and the private sphere, serves to create an atmosphere in which women are subjected to the will of men both implicitly and explicitly. Within the framework of such a society, an act which could be legally classified as “rape” or “sexual assault” is often seen as nothing more than a natural extension of male aggressiveness, at least partly explaining the high rate of impunity for rapists in peacetime society. Furthermore, within a military or combat unit, attributes typically associated with men and masculinity are more valued than during “peace time” because aggressiveness is thought to create stronger, more focused and tightly-bonded soldiers.

When you consider the power inherent in being a combatant – carrying a weapon, being skilled in committing violence, controlling civilian populations – and combine this designated power with the “masculine” traits highly encouraged of combatants, we can understand how masculine gender roles lead to the perpetuation of rape as a weapon of war in the DRC. That is to say the presence of a hyper-masculinized military environment leads to the escalation of a violent act which occurs in peacetime because of accepted notions regarding male aggressiveness.

To evaluate the reinforcing effect that rape as a weapon of war has on gender roles, consider that rape in any context is a means by which men delineate the sexes and reinforce established gender roles, clearly defining to whom power belongs (men) and over whom this power is wielded (women). I will take this idea one step further, however, and argue that rape delineates between “Man” and “Other” rather than serving primarily as an establishment of who is “Woman”. After all, rape is committed against males and females of all ages, not only adult women, and so whom this act is most intended to affect and define is not necessarily the woman upon whom it is being acted. Instead of focusing entirely on rape as it defines “Woman” and the traditional gendered female roles, we should consider that perhaps this violent act primarily defines what constitutes a “Man” with a secondary category of “Other”, to which women would belong, created as a converse to this. The category of “Other” would then include women, children, the elderly, homosexuals and any other person who does not fit the criterion to be “Man”.

Case in point, the act of rape when utilized as a weapon of war is not only intended to be a private crime committed against an individual person; it is intended to be a public act. When a woman is strategically raped in the DRC, the woman's body is a symbolic representation of the male(s) under whose authority she resides. When a man is unable to protect his property (woman) from this type of violation, it is a reflection on his masculinity, his ability to embody the attributes necessary to be defined as a man. Similarly, the woman is shamed for not being able to defend herself, for ultimately not possessing the masculine attributes heralded societally as superior to all others. Consequently, the strategic rape of a woman serves to define both the woman and the man responsible for her as “Other” since both failed to meet the standards necessary to be classified as “Man”.

Similarly, when men are systematically raped in conflict by other men, the point of the act is to de-masculinize the violated man by illustrating his weakness and submissiveness, both of which are attributes not typically associated with masculine gender roles; the violated man is acting (through passivity) outside of the established norms for male. These strategic acts of homosexual rape once again establish who meets the standard of “Man” (the dominant aggressor) and who is relegated to the status of “Other” (the submissive subordinate).

This “othering” of raped men and women has a significant impact on the gender roles they fulfill post-conflict. Studies have shown that heterosexual men who are raped in combat become even more domineering and aggressive in their interactions with women as they return to their peacetime life. Their establishment as “Other” by the rape committed against them can create a strong desire to prove their maleness by exerting power over another “Other”, often resulting in violent responses to those people around them. While this hyper-aggressive man may attempt to assert his dominance over other men through physical altercations (fist fights), violent responses towards women are often sexual since the “othered” man is attempting to re-establish his masculinity in a heteronormative manner.

For victimized women post-conflict, having been raped can reaffirm the “otherness” to which they were already relegated when birthed into a gendered society in which non-men are subordinate to “Man”. Rape sufficiently conveys to women that her sole purpose as an object is to provide sexual gratification for men. It is unsurprising then that women who are raped, whether in wartime or peacetime, have a higher propensity for entering into prostitution, remaining in abusive relationships, and engaging in risky sexual behavior.

We must also consider the way rape affects the perpetrator and reinforces his own gender role. At this point it may seem rather obvious that the person raping other men and women is outwardly embodying the attributes typically associated with “Man”. He is hyper-aggressive, dominant and in an active position of power (literally) over the “Other”. Yet, males are not inherently “tougher” than females and the “Man” role into which the aggressor is fitting himself is often not one they are comfortable personifying without suppressing aides such as alcohol, drugs or religion. Additionally, we must also consider the pressure combatant males often feel from their peers and leaders to rape women as a proof of their masculinity, a further indication of the separation between physical action and mental expression. With this evidence, it may seem fair to say that this personification of “Man” is not an identity which many men are naturally comfortable embodying and is merely a wartime identity adopted to increase fighting efficacy, likely to be abandoned when peacetime resumes and combatants return to their “normal” lives.

Yet despite this dichotomy between the outward and inward expression of maleness, the establishment of a rapist (however unwilling their actions may privately be) as the definitive “Man” in wartime only continues the negative cycle of gender role reinforcement in peacetime. In her book Rape: A History from the 1860s to the Present, Bourke closely studied a group of American soldiers who had used rape as a strategic tactic upon the urging of their combat leaders in the Vietnam War. Despite the soldiers' overwhelming guilt and remorse for their actions, without proper treatment they were at high risk for committing impulsive and violent acts. Unfortunately, they did not abandon their wartime gender roles post-conflict despite the guilt, remorse or other mental discomfort they purportedly felt about their wartime actions.

This empirical example supports the theory regarding the maleness of rape in combat: when wartime rapists return to their post-conflict environment, the trauma they experienced (pressured to rape) often causes them to engage in risky sexual behaviour as a means to maintain their acquired status of “Man”. While I have briefly argued that wartime rape is an extension of a normalized practice in peacetime, the contrary is also true. What becomes normalized in war, despite remorseful feelings the perpetrator may feel after the act, will extend to peacetime. This extension would certainly seem true in the case of the DRC, where sexual violence against women and men in both peace and wartimes has not only continued but increased. We are witnessing the continuance of a cycle wherein rape as a weapon of war is both reinforcing what it means to be “Man” and “Other” in peacetime and perpetrated because of the gendered peacetime roles to which we are bound.