Shocking attitudes point to deep misogyny in Congo

By — November 1, 2012

More than 60 percent of men and women interviewed in the Democratic Republic of Congo said the war has caused them to lose their capacity to love or care for others. (Henny Slegh)

There is little violence on earth more merciless than what is happening to women in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

“When you talk about rape in New York or Paris, everyone can always say, ‘Yes, we have rape here too,’” Dr. Denis Mukwege, the founder of Congo’s Panzi Hospital, told Jeb Sharp, a producer at PRI’s “The World,” in 2008. “But it's not the same thing when a woman is raped by four or five people at the same time, when a woman is raped in front of her husband and children, when a woman is not just raped but then after the rape her genitals are attacked with a gun, a stick, a torch, or a bayonet. That's not what you see in New York. That's not what you see in Paris.”

Research out this week tells us why this might be—why soldiers are actually tearing apart women’s bodies in the course of their nearly two-decade-long war. The results are no less than startling.

The South African-based Sonke Gender Justice Network and the Brazilian nonprofit Promundo asked more than 1,400 men and women around Goma, in Congo's North Kivu province, about their attitudes on rape, gender, why they commit sexualized violence, and what the fallout has been for them. According to the researchers, 37 percent of men surveyed said they have raped a woman. Overall, they found that 9 percent of men and 22 percent of women surveyed said they had experienced sexualized violence in the conflict. Add to that the horrifying violence that accompanies wartime rape in Congo, and, well, I’m actually at a loss for words to describe the absolute destruction of lives that is happening across the board there. (This is not an easy thing to admit as a writer.)

I found myself looking away from this report for the past couple days. Each time I tried to tackle the findings, I wound up staring at my computer screen. You know, checking my email. Anything but this. Something about it was too terrible to stay with, but I’m giving it a go again now because I believe this work is crucial. I mean, really, actually crucial. We have a chance to make sense of what is going on in what is known as the “rape capital of the world,” and we can’t afford to look away.

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The connection between attitude and action

“When a girl is asking for water in such a way, she wants sex,” one man, aged 58, told the researchers of a girl who’d entered his shop looking for water. “So I took her in the middle of my shop. I think she liked it, because her body accepted me to enter.”

He said that her voice provoked him.

Nearly a third of men told the researchers that women “sometimes want to be raped and that when a woman is raped she may enjoy it.”

Nearly half of all men surveyed think “if a woman does not physically resist when forced to have sex that it is not rape.”

Nearly half of the men surveyed said a man should reject his wife if she has been raped.

Now maybe you can see why I kept looking away. But as I said, we have no time to avert our eyes.

Beyond giving us a snapshot of misogyny, what this research so critically does is connect deeply held attitudes about gender and what is being enacted on women in Congo’s war and homes. Sexualized violence, the researchers have found, is much more than a weapon of war—it “reflects widespread acceptance by a majority of men of patriarchal norms and rape myths that justify and normalize both rape and the everyday subordination of women and grant men a sense of entitlement to women’s bodies.”

“This work, by linking sex-subordinating attitudes generally and wartime sexual violence, shows both that wartime rape is a part of a greater system of sex subordination and a part of war,” said Laura Sjoberg, an associate professor of political science at the University of Florida who is also a feminist scholar of international relations and security.

It is that subordination that is so key here—and certainly not just at play in Congo, as we can see so clearly across the board in the staggering levels of domestic violence here in the U.S. (one in four women has experienced it in her lifetime) and in other Western countries.

Take a look at this from the World Health Organization’s 2005 “Multi-Country Study on Women’s Health and Domestic Violence Against Women”:

“The association between the prevalence of partner violence and women’s beliefs that such violence is normal or justified constitutes one of the salient findings of the WHO Study,” says the report. “The fact that the association is particularly marked in rural and more traditional societies reinforces the hypothesis that the status of women within society is a key factor in the prevalence of violence against them… .”

Again, this is global—not just in Congo.

“The study found that in all sites, controlling behavior by an intimate partner was strongly associated with physical and sexual violence.”

Now take a look at the percent of men who agree with the statements below posed by the Congo researchers:

A woman who is raped has provoked this by her own attitude 31.7
Sometimes, women want to be raped 27.9
A man can force a woman to have sex and she may enjoy it 27.3
When a woman does not show physical resistance when she is forced to have sex, you cannot speak of rape 42.7
A man should reject his wife when she has been raped 43.4
A woman who does not dress decently is asking to be raped 74.8
Women deserve sometimes to be beaten 61.4
Women should accept partner violence to keep the family together 64.9

Expected gender roles vary from society to society. But I would say that the men who affirmed the above statements have pretty clear expectations for women’s behavior, and think their resulting noncompliance to expected gender roles “deserves” violence (not dressed “decently?” Rape.). Overall, the researchers found that gender equality was not a concrete idea for men in Congo—they considered it something outside their concept of themselves; nearly half of men interviewed said they thought that gender equality was “something for the rich.” These men are saying that women are theirs to control, in war, in the home, in the street, wherever.

As Gloria Steinem told me back in February: “Conflict is not the only or even the primary normalizer of the extremes of ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine.’ Those roles at home are the normalizers of conflict.”

I would argue that it doesn’t get more extreme than the war in Congo.

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But why is it so omnipresent and brutal?

Steinem and I have written about a concept called the “cult of masculinity,” which comes into play in Congo (as it does on the streets of New York or London in gang violence). A certain kind of masculinity gets forged in the crucible of war that causes men to risk their lives and act against their own self-interest. In fact, the Sonke/Promundo study shows that 12 percent of men committed rape with at least one other attacker. Sixteen percent reported being forced to watch rape carried out by others.

This extreme conception of masculinity is creating an atmosphere in DRC today in which rape and sexualized violence are not only permissible but rampant. The reasons are complex, involving self-esteem, peer pressure, trauma, gender roles, and deep poverty with expectations that men should provide but can’t in an ongoing crisis—see “roles at home are the normalizers of conflict” (not to mention impunity for gender-based crimes, a major culprit). This is not to say that any one of these things causes rape, but that, potentially, together the mix is especially dangerous.

Why there are such heights of extreme violence, as described by Mukwege, must be considered.

Thinking about this actually reminds me of what I noticed last night as I watched “The Invisible War,” a film about rape in the U.S. military: Officers seem to attack those beneath them in rank, and most commonly women (although many men have reported being raped in the U.S. military as well). They attack women because women are unexpected in the military, infuriating. They aren’t supposed to be there. They aren’t fulfilling their “expected” societal roles. Those rapes, too, were particularly violent. Women had their faces smashed, their hips displaced.  

As in Congo, the U.S. military provides scenarios in which a particularly aggressive cult of masculinity is fostered. When the culture of subjugation goes up, so does the violence.  

You can look to prisons as well for this kind of extreme sexualized brutality, whether in Iran, Syria, or the U.S. Mutilating women seems to be about subordination and an attempt to feel powerful. And, of course, the need for dominance takes many forms. Let’s not forget that men are raped in these situations too. But the principle is the same, according to Sjoberg:  

“Does rape of men make rape less gender-subordinating/feminizing?” she asks. “No, it means men can be feminized too.”

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How disenfranchisement leads to sexualized violence

One thing I found particularly fascinating from the Sonke/Promundo findings: It shows that economic stress has profound effects among men in terms of how they feel about their families:

72% are ashamed to face their family because out of work
75% are ashamed to face family because can’t provide basic financial needs
53% have considered leaving their family because of lack of income
46% sometimes drink or stay away from home because they can’t find work

“This is like losing being masculine,” a man in an IDP camp told the researchers about not being able to sustain his family.

(Note the immediate connection between economic disenfranchisement and masculinity.)

“When she is accusing me that I did not bring home anything, sometimes I feel I could kill her,” said a man in Goma, about not being able to give his wife money for food. “What kind of a man am I, being insulted by his own wife?”

(This statement is a great example of how a culture of male dominance creates a dynamic in which this man feels at risk of being feminized by the larger societal matrix as well as his own wife. It is clear that he then feels he has to regain his authority, which seems to translate into dominating aggressively whoever is at hand, aka his family.)

“My husband lost all his properties and this made him mad. He liked to eat and be the boss, but he lost everything. Now he is an aggressive and nervous man,” a woman in the camp said.

(We get it.)

Add to this overwhelming economic hardship a terrible ingredient: the fact that a majority of men and women interviewed said they have experienced traumatic events during the conflict. They’ve seen family members killed, been personally injured or raped, or even forced to witness rape. In total, 59 percent of men and 73 percent of women reported at least one traumatic event due to the conflict, according to the researchers. The residents of Congo are being exposed to violence down to their bones.

The correlation is clear. The researchers’ numbers show a marked association between exposure to violence, both in childhood and in the war, and an increased likelihood of perpetration of gender-based violence. First A, then B. (Then, post-war, back to A, with a smattering of B.)

Mukwege pointed out to me when I met him in September that child soldiers who return home grow into men—men who are not being taught any other way to behave. What have they learned in their lives but aggression? Among men who were forced to leave home during the conflict, 50 percent reported committing an act of gender-based violence against their female partner. That number drops to 37 percent for men who were never forced to leave home for the conflict.

One wife of a soldier told the researchers: “When my husband is not happy and he drinks a lot, he can be very violent when having sex. He is beating me a lot.”

And then there are the measured psychological consequences of the violence. The numbers below are the percent of men (left) and women (right) who agree with the statements:

Lost capacity to love or care for others 61.7 61.6
Lost my ability to trust in others 57.8 61.8
Lost reputation before my family 33.3 28.1
The war made me a bad person 38.6 57.1
The war made me stronger 35.9 40.9

We’re looking at a population traumatized, battered, and injured by war. We’re looking at millions of people who have lost faith in humanity, themselves, and their partners. We’re looking at that plus a lack of relief from constant violence, which can only pressure-cook whatever is simmering beneath the surface.

It’s probably no surprise then that women told the researchers about increased violence and the normalizing of alcohol and drug abuse in the house in the aftermath of the conflict, particularly among soldiers. “They have to forget what they have seen and they need to sleep well,” one person said.

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Understanding = power to change

Trauma not properly addressed breaks a person down.

Thinking of women as property leads to treating them no better than the dirt on the ground.

An unhealthy desire for control and dominance leads to violence.

The grouping together of men in war, with weapons and peer pressure and constant violence, allows some of them to act within an unhealthy cult of masculinity.

Shame is a powerful feeling.

I do not envy whoever is in the way of these particular men, drinking, up all night with nightmares, thinking that women deserve sometimes to be beaten. We now know all this is happening in Congo. If only we could see that it is happening all over the world.

It does not have to be this way.