human rights, international development, international justice, women's rights

Narratives of rape in the DRC: helpful, but perpetuating stereotypes?

Women Under Siege is a fascinating new initiative of the Women’s Media Center that focuses on rape and sexual violence used as tools of control in instances of war, conflict, and genocide throughout the world. The project is spearheaded by Gloria Steinem and hopes to increase our understanding of the causes of mass sexual assaults so that we may begin to work towards the solutions and hopefully, prevention in the future. The new project’s aim is commendable: to demonstrate that rape is a tool of war via public education, and an action plan to push for the interventions to halt gender-based genocide. Definitely a new project to watch – and a fascinating blog!

However, one of their most recent blog posts, titled “What it’s like to cover the unbearable stories of rape in the Congo,” gave me some pause. It is an interview with intrepid photojournalist Lynsey Addario, who discusses her time in the DRC interviewing survivors of sexual violence and rape. Addario writes:

Rape as a weapon of war was rampant in Congo. Soldiers raped women to mark their territory, to destroy family bonds (women were often ostracized from their families once they were raped), and to show their power and intimidate civilians. They gang-raped women—they used their weapons to tear them apart, causing internal tears resulting in fistula—and they forced the families of the victims to watch gang rapes in progress. The stories were unbearable, and the more testimonies I heard during interviews, the more angry and sad I became.

On the plus side, Addario does write about the inspiration she gained from speaking with these women – she mentions their courage in the face of immense obstacles below:

 I didn’t meet a single women in all my interviews who felt resentment toward their child born out of rape and violence: It amazed me that all the women had the maturity and heart to love their children regardless of the circumstances out of which they were born.
I felt inadequate and helpless as a journalist: Rape as a weapon of war started long before I came along in the DRC, and would sadly continue for long after. But all the women and girls I met were a testament to the strength of women to persevere in the face of evil, and continue to be an inspiration to me today.

However, my seed of doubt has begun with the worry that focusing exclusively on stories of war and gender-based violence in the DRC (and in other parts of the world) simply might amplify the negative stereotypes of Africa as a place of nothing more than war, pain, misery, and suffering. Building off my previous post, don’t journalists have some sort of obligation to pay attention to their portrayal of African women as helpless, victimized, with little voice, agency or control over their lives?

I frequently go back to “How to write about Africa,” the excellent article about how exactly not to do so. This part seems especially relevant:

Among your characters you must always include The Starving African, who wanders the refugee camp nearly naked, and waits for the benevolence of the West. Her children have flies on their eyelids and pot bellies, and her breasts are flat and empty. She must look utterly helpless. She can have no past, no history; such diversions ruin the dramatic moment. Moans are good. She must never say anything about herself in the dialogue except to speak of her (unspeakable) suffering.

Obviously, articles like the Women Under Siege post mentioned are not as flawed — but I will say that we should ask reporters not just to write about the helpless nature of African “victims” of rape, so as not to fit so neatly into the familiar and sad tropes about Africa as a continent of war and suffering — and indeed, the entire developing world. As I have said before, this does not mean we shouldn’t talk about human suffering, or that we should ignore the plight of survivors of gender-based violence and genocide. These issues deserve to be discussed seriously. But let us not portray the subjects of our stories as powerless and voiceless beings, and let us also devote attention to all the positive developments that are happening.

Why don’t reporters talk about non-profits in the DRC and elsewhere that are changing their communities for the better? Why not feature and speak to local women leaders who are dynamic and tireless in pursuit of a better future? There are many empowering stories to be told, but unfortunately I all too often see them ignored in favor of stories of the silent “victims.”

What do you think? How can reporters balance writing about rape survivors, genocide and other human rights issues without perpetuating stereotypes?


3 thoughts on “Narratives of rape in the DRC: helpful, but perpetuating stereotypes?”

  1. almostclever says:

    I think this is such an excellent critique, and it hits home for me as someone who writes quite often about the sex trade. 

    I think, when we are in it, and we are witness to such suffering – it is really hard to pull a higher perspective from it unless we are consciously putting effort into seeing the pain AND the beauty – we must acknowledge both or we are not seeing the full picture.  I agree, we must not get bogged down in our shock or in our own feelings of helplessness in the situation – pushing our internal feelings onto the story instead of seeing what the women see.  

    When preparing a presentation about domestic sex trafficking the first thing my professor said to me was “don’t forget about agency.” 

    We mustn’t forget.  In every woman there is a strength to be pulled from, not just victimhood, in fact – maybe not victimhood at all. We only know when we speak to a woman personally, hear what she says about her life. All too often we paint woman as victim; we can’t lose sight of women’s strength.

    Thanks for this post.  🙂  🙂 


    1. Akhila says:

      Thank you so much. I agree – when you are actively involved in working with women, sometimes hearing their stories is extremely overwhelming and it is painful to believe that people are going through so much suffering. 
      However we cannot forget that even those who are abused have so much power and strength in the way they are living their lives.

      More broadly, there are horrible things happening in many societies, but dwelling solely on these issues causes us to forget all the growth and positive change that is happening too. Constantly talking only about sexual violence in the DRC for example simply perpetuates the idea of Africa as this “dark continent” with nothing but wars and guns and violence. 

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