The horrors are so terrible that they sound made up but—somehow—they aren't.
A woman raped in front of her husband. In front of her parents-in-law. Forced to watch her child killed and then raped. Forced to have sex with her son in front of militants. Raped when nine months' pregnant.
The examples are endless in the Democratic Republic of Congo. There has been such extreme humiliation of women at the hands of militias for nearly two decades of war.
This woman was raped by soldiers in DRC. According to the photographer, the attack caused her to miscarry and gave her fistula. She fled her village. (Endre Vestvik)
Here is one woman's experience, in her own words:
I had just finished bathing and saw that military men had arrived at my house. They forced open the door and forced me into the main room. Then the rape started. I wanted to defend myself. I asked why this was happening to me. I was beat by one while the other raped me. My children cried. The soldiers forced us to be silent and threatened to kill us. I am ashamed and want to die but I also want to protect my children.
I don't know what happened to this woman when the soldiers left her house. Did her husband leave her? Many husbands have—claiming that their wives have lost “value” or are now drawing negative attention to the household. In fact, a 2012 study conducted by the South Africa-based Sonke Gender Justice Network and Brazilian nonprofit Promundo in Goma, in Congo's North Kivu province, found that 43 percent of men surveyed agreed with the statement that “A man should reject his wife when she has been raped.”
Men have walked out of their marriages, leaving women to figure out how to earn money to feed themselves and their children and to cope on their own with the extraordinary violence perpetrated on them. But many men have stayed. The question then becomes: Did these men help their wives through the trauma they'd experienced? Did they honor them despite this cultural shame of having been violated? After their 2012 study, Sonke and Promundo went back to DRC to conduct further research on exactly this. What they found in their new study is shocking.
“We went into the study thinking it was positive when men did not reject wives or partners who experienced rape in conflict,” said Gary Barker, international director of Promundo.
But that's not what was going on. What was happening was that the combined trauma of the war and of the rape of their wives was creating a situation in which men became abusive to their partners.
In fact, more than half of the men surveyed reported ever carrying out some form of violence against their female partner, and 65 percent of women reported ever having experienced violence, including sexualized violence, from a male partner, i.e., women were attacked by their husbands on top of being raped by soldiers.
“We were distressed at how much men are traumatized by their partners' experience of rape and how much men's trauma was taken out in the form of physical violence on their already victimized wives,” Barker said.
Violence begets violence. And in DRC, that has come to mean rape: “The scale of rape over DRC's years of war has made this crime seem more acceptable,” said Susan Bartels, chief researcher at the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative, in 2010. She was commenting on a study recently completed that found that rape by civilians had increased 17-fold in the country.
While such treatment may be inhumane, it's also important to look at the reasons why a number of men have chosen to take out their anger on their victimized wives.
“To truly assist women survivors of conflict-related rape in DRC and elsewhere, we need to understand how women's trauma affects men and how men's trauma affects women,” Barker said.
In DRC, basic hardships like poverty, hunger, childhood trauma, and lack of work have taken their toll on generations of men and women. (And by “hunger,” I mean that 57 percent of men and 60 percent of women eat only one meal a day or less, according to the researchers.) Another major finding was the high levels of trauma among men from the war—“which further exaggerates levels of violence in the home,” according to the report. Large numbers of men, the study said, have also themselves been the victims of various forms of violence, including of sexualized violence, whether during the war or in childhood. Researchers found that there was a “clear association” between men's exposure to violence during childhood and increased likelihood of perpetration later.
Together, these difficult circumstances are associated with the use of violence by men against their partners—an example of men taking out their frustrations on their subjugated wives. And if women haven't been subjugated already, they may have become so from the lowering of status that comes with rape in DRC: “Women who were raped reported losing their reputation before their family at higher rates than women who were not raped,” according to the researchers.
Take a look at these statements from women in the study to get a better idea of how they've been treated after their rape:
“He feels weak and frustrated because he was not able to stop the rapist, or get him. He feels that he lost his power and fertility. He accuses his wife for this.”
“The community makes it very difficult; my husband feels ashamed, and me too. People don't respect him because he has no work and a wife that was raped.”
“The day I told him that I was raped, he fell on the floor and got ill. He lost his self esteem and needs medicine.”
And here are statements from men:
“My brothers and sisters became my enemies after I forgive my wife that she was raped. They say that my wife killed me because I got HIV/AIDS and they don't support me.”
“I tried to live with my wife, but she lost all value as a wife. It destroyed our relationship and family life. I beat her a lot.”
As a side note—keep in mind that children of these couples are caught in the nightmare as well:
“He is beating his children. He says, ‘I have problems because of your mother, that is why I beat you,'” said one woman.
“The child born after rape is poisoning me and my family. Seeing the child reminds me of the rape. I hate the child, I hate my wife and the Rwandans who did this,” according to one man.
The researchers have put it well: “Family has become the battlefield where men try to regain control and power that is lost elsewhere in life.”
In DRC, all forms of violence against women are “underpinned by widespread acceptance of patriarchal norms and perceptions that support rape, that justify and normalize rape and the everyday subordination of women,” said Barker. And such patriarchal norms and variations of these perceptions exist across much of the world.
Women in dozens of countries are saddled with a violent life at home after facing sexualized violence in war, and some men—I truly believe—are burdened with the inability to value and connect with their wives and children. It seems a sad life for such men, doesn't it? Men who rebel against their own humanity, their own empathy, in further violating their injured wives? Such emptiness.
But there is only so much that condemnation can do. At some point, there must be redress for the men who carry out these acts, a way to rehabilitate them in order to stop these brutalizing cycles. There must be a way to restore their humanity. (Women's medical and psychosocial needs obviously need further attention too, but international organizations at least pay a little attention to these problems—although funders certainly could do more to reach more women.)
A program called Living Peace, supported by Promundo and the World Bank, is trying to “engender opportunities for men and women to re-envision what it means to be a man beyond the context of war as a pathway to sustaining, and living, peace.” The group is trying to build community support for families living with war-related trauma. One hopeful drop of relief in an ocean of pain, the program attempts to help men rebuild and “return to living” in conflict-affected areas around the world.
Men “returned to living” means more peace. More peace means less violence for women. Less violence for women means that they will finally have time and space to heal from already-inflicted wounds, giving humanity a real shot at finding kindness and love in a deeply broken place.