Rape as Social Policy: The Congo

Last week’s blog about rape and knowledge was written as a prelude to this.  After reading Ann Jones article in The Nation  A Crime Against Society I couldn’t help but think that the unfortunate women in the story were not only victimized by individual rapists, nor by the very policies and military strategies that encourage rape, but they were also victimized by the peculiar forms of knowledge that define their social place. As Michel Foucault might describe it, they have been enslaved by the “chains of their own ideas.”

In the Congo women’s bodies, labor and sexuality are the very real property of men.  The shame of rape, however, belongs to the woman.  A woman who is raped is out-caste from the community as a means of saving face for patronizing man, be it her father or husband. This way of knowing women’s bodies and sexuality elevates the crime of rape from a manifestation of individual power of individual to a social policy of civic destruction, forced removal and even genocide.

Since the economy of Congolese communities is dependent upon the labor and movement of women in the fields and in the marketplace it’s not just the women who are victimized by rape, but rather the entire community.  Rape becomes a military strategy, or a political imperative.  Rape is the means not just of conquering the woman, but of conquering the territory.  A brutal policy of rape used to terrorize a population keeps women from the fields and from the market, destroying the economies of agrarian villages.  That rape is destructive to the woman is secondary to the humiliation it delivers to the men.  Such men either join local militias to save face, or through coercion, removing themselves from the care of their communities.  Or they migrate to the cities to compensate for the loss of income consequent to the rape of their women.  Either way, the village is destroyed. The people relocated, the farms burned.  The militants move on to the next village…to the next rape.

The social fabric of the society unravels.  Women are kicked form their homes and into poverty or into work in the sex trade, what Jones refers to as “survival sex.” Their children are either taken by their mothers to share in their destitution or are abandoned by shamed fathers.  Even men who have the fortitude to stand by their wives or daughters do so at their own ruin. They are shunned from their families and the engagement of the community.  It’s a rare family that can survive the devastation of rape combined with the social place of women in these societies.

So organizations like the International Rescue Committee have a daunting challenge.  On the one hand they must find ways of reaching the hundreds of thousands of women who have been raped as a matter of policy in the Congo and help them get access to medical services and social services to help them get on their feet.  No. The challenge is much deeper than that. They must reach these women, as well as the significant men in their lives, and actually change the medieval mindset of their culture.

It’s going to take more than a stern UN Resolution to accomplish this. Working against the knowledge of a culture is certainly and upstream movement.  It will take mass re-education

Ironically, the immensity of the horror may actually do more to reshape the ideas of this culture than any single program.  With such huge numbers of victimized women (and by the standards of their culture, victimized men and children and communities) the cultural elements of what rape means and the place of women in society must change by force of momentum.  Women are learning that they are not alone in their isolation…so they are not isolated.  Men are learning that there are other ways to deal with their raped loved ones than to exile them.  A whole generation of children will be raised under the specter of rape. They will be forced to come to terms with the terrible lived experiences of their parents and with the terrible consequences of an exploitative ontology.

In the meantime, we need to support the efforts of groups like the International Rescue Committee and their endeavors against this immense human travesty.  Please see the Journal of a Mad Sociologist Take Action Page to help support the IRC and for more information on this very pressing issue.

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