Rethinking Rape in War: M23 Rebels, Congo

In response to M23 rebels taking control of Goma Iain Guest, in the Guardian, reminds us that rape in war presents a serious threat to women in the Congo. This in itself is unproblematic. However it is also his contention that a growing body of research, including the recent Human Security Report, seeks to “demolish” narrativesof rape as a weapon of war in the Congo.  In attempting to demonstrate that these efforts are misplaced he argues that“this conflict is all about ethnicity.” More specifically that “following the M23 rebellion, five armed groups are now fighting each other in the Kivus, and any woman whom they catch in the open will probably get raped if she is from a different ethnic background.”

I then want to take this opportunity to respond by asking what is at stake in moving beyond narratives of rape as a weapon of war, and why M23 rebels taking control of Goma might actually demonstrate that this conflict is not all about ethnicity. It is important to note that this body of research does not seek to demolish narratives of rape as a weapon of war. However, amongst other things, it does seek to complicate the seamlessness of ethnicity within narratives of rape as a weapon of war. In particular it examines how narratives frame sexual violence as ethnic warfare. To quote the International Criminal Tribunal as an act “committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a racial, national or religious group.” In regards the Congo it then argues that such definitions have resulted in rape becoming synonymous with images of ‘savagery’ and ‘tribalism’.  It is this explicit ‘othering’ of the Congo as the Heart of Darkness that then raises questions about the predominance of ethnicity in narratives of rape as a weapon of war. For asking what is lost when ethnicity becomes the explanatory framework. I then want to demonstrate how the current situation in the Congo might offer other explanations for rape in war.

The M23 rebels in taking control of Goma signals a break-down of the 2009 peace deal between Joseph Kabila (Congo) and Paul Kagame (Rwanda), which saw the National Congress for the Defence of the People (CNDP) disband. Following the peace deal former CNDP fighters were integrated in to the national armed forces in the Congo. However the integration processes have proved problematic. Commentators noted that the CNDP’S structure remained more or less intact. In April of this year many former CNDP fighters then began defecting to join M23, which a UN report released today alleges are receiving support from Rwanda and Uganda. On Tuesday M23 then seized control of Goma whilst the national armed forces – poorly supplied and rarely paid – fled the city without putting up any resistance (they have since launched a counter-offensive in a nearby village Sake).

Guest is then right to remind us that rape in war presents a serious threat to women in the Congo. M23 as well as the national armed forces have been associated with mass rapes. However whilst the M23 fighters are mainly of Tutsi origin I am not sure this means that this means we should frame sexual violence as ethnic warfare. I then argue that the focus on ethnicity obscures complex dimensions of rape in war, such as the failure to integrate CNDP fighters or dissatisfaction amongst national armed force in the Congo, which in turn point to how precarious military structures and harsh military conditions may make it difficult for fighters to fulfill their role as ‘men’. In particular how they may make it difficult for fighters to fulfill their roles as ‘warrior soldiers’ or ‘economic providers’. This is then important because rape in war establishes differences between ‘men’ and ‘women’ that are perceived to be under threat.

 This is just one way in which rape in war might otherwise be explained. What I then want to stress is not that conflict in the Congo does not includes the violent drawing of ethnic boundaries, but rather that it might be worth asking whether it is enough to argue that rape is a weapon of war? At the end of his entry Guest asks what a ‘new’ narrative of rape in war might look like. However in the case of M23 rebels taking control of Goma and the serious threat to women in the Congo I want to argue that there might be multiple explanations for rape in war.

Rachel Massey

One Comment on “Rethinking Rape in War: M23 Rebels, Congo

  1. In another article, published by the Guardian, on the M23 rebels and national armed forces a link is made between military conditions in the national armed forces and rape that suggests that this conflict is not all about ethnicity…

    ‘The official national army, meanwhile, is hungry, badly paid and collapsing into disarray […] They are visibly drunk, angry, paranoid […] Civilians describe the tension as unbearable and accuse the soldiers of rape and looting since their arrival last Thursday’

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2012/nov/26/drc-army-accused-rape-murder-congo

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