Sunday, April 13, 2008

My Thoughts on The Greatest Silence and Rape in the Congo

Watching The Greatest Silence created a dilemma for me: it was both so difficult to watch and impossible to turn away from it. When Lisa Jackson mused that, for many of the survivors whom she filmed at one meeting, this would be the first time their stories were heard outside the meeting room, I was struck not only by how sad and how frustrating that was, but how true.

There are moments, themes from that film that stick with me. First, as An Anxious Black Woman pointed out:
there are TWO kinds of rapists lurking in the shadows (or boldfacedly emerging to terrorize the nation) of the Congo - the local soldiers and multinational corporations. So, these gang rapists - working in SOLIDARITY, I might add! - are perpetuating the violence.
Corporations take untold millions of dollars of natural resources from the Congo--a fact Chris Clarke wrote about a year ago.* Competition over these resources fuels the ongoing war with the catastrophic results on which Jackson focuses.

Then, there were Jackson's chilling interviews with the rapists. On the surface, they described their violent acts in terms of physiological need, portraying rape as a "natural" outcome--what happens when men have been in the bush too long without sex. Jackson attempted to ask them if the rapes were about power and sex. The interpreter dismissed her question, telling her that these men could not understand what she was asking. But I think he was wrong. The more the soldiers talked, the more it became obvious that they very much understood the power dynamic. They raped, some said, because they were ordered to do so. They made women and children suffer because they had suffered. Repeatedly, they said, "If she refuses, then I must..." and one of the soldiers offered an explanation based on men's superiority to women. One of the most chilling statements in that film began with, "Yes, she's a human being, too, but-" Because what follows is the implication that "her" humanity is somehow less than "his."

The nature of the rapes as well--the violent attacks with sticks and razors and hot coals that destroy women's bladders/urinary tracts and their uteruses--points to the fact that soldiers understand that they are waging a total war, that the murder and rape of women and children can destroy "enemy" nations. That is not to dismiss the purported "allies" who rape as well--the UN peacekeepers and the soldiers from these women's own communities, for example.

And so the stories that emerge from the film are disturbing. The women who are isolated from their families and communities because they have been "shamed" and because they can no longer control some bodily functions. The young woman who named her daughter "Lumiere," French for "light." When Jackson tried to grasp some triumph from that name--"She is your light?" she asked the young woman--she is told solemnly "No, I was obliged to accept her." The lack of adequate medical and emotional care--the clearly overwhelmed Panzi Hospital, for example. The dedicated Officer Honorine who reveals the overwhelming nature of her work--she is the only officer for child protection and for investigating crimes of sexual violence.

And the privileged, Western feminist in me railed at the fact that, for many of these women, their only hope is to find a man who will "accept" and help them. They are largely illiterate and lack paid workforce skills. To me, it seemed, so much of their lives was determined by their encounters and relationships with men. That is an analysis, of course, that places my feelings at the center, and so it is sadly insufficient and unfair.

A few days ago, Professor Black Woman wrote that "women's bodies are part of the battleground in wars" and, in that sense at least**, the rape epidemic in the Congo was not exceptional but part of a worldwide pattern. Anxious Black Woman expounded upon that today as she remembered
those Carib, Arawak, Aztec, Mayan, Creek, Cherokee, Iroquois, Inuit, Kanaka Maoli, Warai, and Jingili women whose genitalia were routinely cut out of them and placed on sticks, spears, and hats for proud exhibition. I think of the Khoisan woman from South Africa, Saartjie Baartman, whose genitalia was also placed on proud exhibition - not on a spear, but in a scientific bell jar. I think of imperialism and racism, and how both ideologies depended upon the institution of misogyny to maintain supremacy. I think of this long, long, awfully long history of women in general - and women of color especially - who are often targeted for the most brutal forms of violence and then enveloped in silence so that we dare not dwell on the traumatic memories or, worse, on the traumatic future that is surely set for our daughters.
In recounting how "disturbing" these stories are, I do not mean to discount the fact that these women survived and that spirit of survival comes through loud and clear. I remember how proud one woman was that, after surgery to repair her fistula, she was no longer wetting the bed. In that meeting that I mentioned initially, the nun who works with survivors opined that together, they could help each other, that speaking out, sharing their stories could ease the trauma, foster a sense of connectedness. Jackson filmed survivors learning trades and nurturing their children and tending their gardens.***

She also captured them singing. And laughing, a sound she remembered hearing so little of in the Congo.

Further reading (I'll add to these links):

Anxious Black Woman (to whom I owe so much)
Professor Black Woman
Res Publica
Katie (here, too)

Then, there is always the question of what we can do.**** Here's a non-exhaustive list:
Anxious Black Woman challenges us to call out corporate rapists. (She's provided contact information).
Support Women for Women, International.
Support Doctors without Borders.
Support the International Rescue Committee.
Here is a link to the Panzi Hospital.

From the BBC:
The Panzi Hospital (for Victims of Sexual Violence)
8th Community of Pentecostal Churches in Central Africa (CEPAC)
Medical Department.
PO Box: 266
South Kivu Province,
Democratic Republic of Congo

Christian Relief Network
CRN deal regularly with the Panzi Hospital
CRN, Christian Relief Network
(+47) 22 01 07 00

*Thanks, Lauren for the link.
**In speaking of Congolese "exceptionality," I say "in that sense" because Melissa's post points me to a WaPo article that suggests that the prevalence of rape in the Congo is, indeed, exceptional.
***Lex has a wonderful post about how tending our gardens also means tending each other--knowing " how to make each other grow."
**** As a teacher, I've been trying to get my post-45 class to make links, to be not-as-clueless as I was about rape and exploitation and war. We talked about "comfort women" in World War II. And when we covered the My Lai massacre, we talked about the rape of Vietnamese women. I did not assign The Greatest Silence, as I had not seen it, but I did recommend that they watch it. A couple of them did and one young woman asked me "Why do you think it happens?" a question that I re-directed to her classmates.

1 comment:

ConsciousAwakening said...

Hi there!! I was just googling sexual violence in the Congo and came across your blog. I'm SO GLAD to see that people are responding to this!

I am actually about to go volunteer with Panzi Hospital in Bukavu, Congo, to help heal/ treat survivors. I was wondering if you would mind posting my website? Unfortunately, I haven't been able to get grants since I am no longer a student, so I am launching a personal fundraising campaign. My website is

Anything you could do to help me publicize and get the word out would be awesome!

Thanks again for increasing awareness of this very important issue!!

Brandi Walker

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