‘Rape as a Weapon of War’ Obscures Complexities of Violence in DR Congo

The following is an excerpt from my plenary speech, Daring to Make A Difference for DR Congo: Research, Theory, and the Critical Scholar-Activist at the 2015 annual meeting of the National Council on Family Relations conference held in Vancouver, BC, November 13.


When rape in conflict is framed as a weapon of war, it obscures important distinctions between contexts, perpetrators, the forms of sexualized violence beyond rape, and the forms of violence that are not sexual violations but also occurring in Congo.

For example, there is a difference between conflict-related sexualized violence and domestic sexualized violence. Intimate partner sexualized violence is considered to be the most pervasive form of violence against women in all areas of the DRC. However, reporting IPV is rare because women have no legal rights to property or wealth and fear losing their children or being shunned by the community. Further, there is no law against marital rape.

So we see that this concept of rape as a weapon of war fails to capture:

  1. domestic SV
  2. the difference between sexualized and non-sexualized IPV
  3. SV perpetrated by non-combatants such as police, criminals, people in                      positions of authority, women, civilians
  4. other forms of non-sexual violence: torture, forced labor, child soldiers, murder,              trafficking, and child abuse
  5. other forms of sexualized violence: sexual slavery, sexual harassment,                        trafficking for the purpose of sexual exploitation, forced exposure to                        pornography, forced pregnancy, forced sterilization, forced abortion, forced marriage, female genital mutilation, virginity tests, and incest

Finally, the conceptualization of rape as a weapon of war obscures other structural, social, and psychological factors that contribute to gender-based violence and violence in general in the DRC. Factors such as…..

  1. impunity
  2. poverty
  3. failed state (lack of infrastructure such as schools, roads, healthcare, etc.)
  4. trauma
  5. geopolitics of the region
  6. historical context (e.g., legacies of colonization, Mabuto, etc.)
  7. control of natural resources
  8. disputes over land rights, citizenship rights
  9. displaced persons
  10. corruption
  11. inferior status of women in DRC across all domains (economic, social, cultural,       political)
  12. hegemonic masculinity
  13. reintegration of combatants
  14. circulation of arms
  15. dynamics of armed groups
  16. status of conflict (pre-, active, post-)

These narrow conceptualizations result in ineffective responses to human suffering and stifle Congolese self-determination. The mass atrocities in Congo must be understood as a symptom of failed economic, social, and political structures rooted in the legacy of colonization, the geopolitics of the region, corruption, the scramble for natural resources, and the inferior status of women.

Select sources: Alexandra, 2010; Eriksson Baaz & Stern, 2013; Henry, 2015; Koos, 2015; Peterman, Palermo & Bredenkamp, 2011; Prio, 2010

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Thanks, Lasell College for a Remarkable Residency!

I was honored to be the Donahue Distinguished Scholar in Residence at Lasell College in Newtown, MA last week! My four days were jam packed with energizing discussions and thoughtful critical analyses of the DR Congo, human rights, activism, and social justice. I met with faculty, students, and community members over 8 meals, talked with 6 State Senators about pending conflict-minerals legislation, spoke to 5 classes, spent two days at the State House, and gave one keynote address, Daring to Make A Difference: Activism, Congo, and Finding Your Voice for Global Change.

A special thanks to Dr. Tessa le Roux for nominating me for the residency and to Dr. Jesse Tauriac, the Director of the Donahue Institute, for making it all happen. I am fortunate to call you colleagues and now dear friends. Thanks to the many students and faculty who took the time to engage and reflect on a variety of global issues and how we might impact change. Finally, a deep gratitude to Congo Action Now, Boston for Congo, Lasell for Congo and the entire Lasell community for your generous hospitality and inspirational interactions.

Professor Karin Raye’s class, Exploring Activism

Breakfast with fun faculty, Dr. Tauriac, Dr. Janbek & Dr. Athey

Dinner with Dr. le Roux, student Samantha Ramos, Dr. Tauriac and daughter Hyacinth

Sen. McGee and I on the State House Senate floor discussing Congo after he introduced me to the chamber. He is author of the conflict-mineral bill.

Congo Action Now community and student members

Lunch with Congo Action Now, Boston for Congo, Lasell for Congo members

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Defying Mass Violence and Genocide

Many thanks to the Stanley Foundation for publishing my article, Defying Mass Violence and Genocide in their latest issue of Courier and featuring articles by two additional Carl Wilkens Fellows, Anthony Kasongo and Tigranna Zakaryan. Thank you i-ACT for giving us the opportunity!

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Feminist Parenting, Privilege and Ubuntu: Lessons from the Field and Our Own Backyard

The following is my keynote address on March 25, 2015 for the Penn State Global Programs/Global Connections annual International Women’s Day Breakfast. My daughter, Arianna (a PSU senior), received the Spirit of Internationalizaiton Award that morning, too, an honor I received in 2009.

My daughter has a tattoo. It reads, “We find ourselves through selflessness.” While I am not a particular fan of body art – reflecting an obvious mother/daughter generation gap – the words DO reflect a guiding principle that we share.

Arianna broke the news to me carefully, about her tattoo, worried about how I might react, much as she announced that she would not be home for this past Thanksgiving because she was participating on a Penn State research project in The Gambia. As a parent, this is one of those moments when you wonder if somehow you got it all wrong. What was I thinking? Raising an independent child who would one day go off on her own adventures and have her own life– without me!

Well, Arianna is 22-years-old, having worked with me on service or research projects abroad every single year since the age of 10. I’ve always told her that had I been a physics professor, her life might have turned out quite differently, filled with chalkboard calculations and backyard rockets instead of social justice pursuits. I do have small parental guilt over the limited options I presented as a scholar-activist and a single-parent. Kiddo, you never had a chance.

Recently we’ve had opportunities to give joint research presentations of our work, particularly as it relates to lessons learned from indigenous knowledge. This was a proud parent moment for me and I struggled to maintain composure in front of the audience. I’m sure people must have been quite confused as I teared up, and my voice cracked, while explaining the theoretical frameworks that guided our projects.

We’ve actually had a variety of reactions to our travels and work. Most people have expressed support, of course. There is curiosity and sometimes even a little envy of our mother-daughter adventures. But our joint work is a logical outcome of the feminisms that have always informed our daily lives.

Early photos of Ari as a toddler show her bundled up in a stroller as we headed out to a “Take Back the Night” march during my graduate school days. Later photos include picket signs as we participated in women’s rights and peace marches in Washington, DC and there are snapshots of her with my students on field experiences abroad. Now she ventures out on her own, texting me photographs from Kenya of her greenhouse projects with small-scale farmers and pictures of her with village elders discussing water issues for a research project in Senegal.

The first time she traveled as a university student to Africa without me, I was a bit taken aback. As someone who studies child and adult development, this should not have been a surprise, that she was striking out on her own. But I’ve always felt several stages behind and have struggled to keep up. Even when she first started walking, she was still wearing footie pajamas or socks for months. Then one day it dawned on me, “I need to buy her shoes!”

Divorce, in my pursuit of independence and freedom, Ari’s constant exposure to NPR or BBC radio news in our house and car, my critical feminist analysis of everyday life (ad nauseam), and our immersion in university life no doubt impacted Ari’s early development. We had no TV, we boycotted Wal-Mart, McDonald’s and Nike, and bought most of our clothes at thrift shops – all practices that I still engage in today. Now that Ari is an adult living on her own, she has wavered somewhat regarding our boycotts. And I try hard not to take it personally. Ari, in contrast, seizes the opportunity to challenge my social class privilege and hypocrisy with reminders that I can afford not to shop at Wal-Mart and that choosing Target instead, is no solution. Ahh, the proverbial (feminist) chicks have come home to roost! Her quick refrain of, “Mom, that is such a first world problem,” when I dither over trivial concerns, certainly puts our privilege into perspective, as well as makes me groan, albeit with a wee bit of pride.

Understanding privilege is an intentional pursuit for me, personally and professionally, in my research, in my teaching, and as part of a larger social justice pursuit. Consequently, Ari was exposed to this concept at an early age. She was also influenced by colleagues and friends, some of whom are in this room, people who model reflexivity or introspection and critical humility, and have certainly inspired us to new levels of self-awareness.

As a young teenager, during our multiple Penn State service-learning trips to Tanzania, Ari held her own, impressively, in discussions with my students about white and Western privilege. This was challenged, however, during her first trip with me to the Democratic Republic of the Congo when she was 17-years-old.

I had already been to the country several times to visit Panzi Hospital which is known for its exceptional holistic care of survivors of sexualized violence, led by Dr. Denis Mukwege, a pioneering surgeon, human rights activist, and founder of the hospital. It’s here that I still conduct research with survivors of assault and help support programs for women via Panzi Foundation USA, a non-profit I co-founded in 2010 with Dr. Mukwege and Peter Frantz.

Ari was very much aware of the situation in Congo, the on-going conflict, and the rampant rape that brought women to Panzi for treatment. She was savvy enough to understand the complexities of this failed state, the legacies of it’s brutal colonial history, the resulting poverty despite a wealth of natural resources, and the geo-politics of the Great Lakes region that fueled the conflicts. This reality was unsettling for her and despite my reassurances that I was safe in Congo, she still worried about mom. I knew that if I intended to continue my involvement with Panzi Hospital and the women, I needed to take Ari to the DRC and let her experience the country for herself.

Many people were critical of this decision to visit a country labeled as “the rape capital of the world” on the “dark continent”. Their implied judgment was clear, “What kind of a mother takes her daughter to a such a dangerous place and intentionally puts her child at risk?” While I appreciated the concern, this frequent criticism represented a very superficial understanding of the country’s context, culture, and gender. In turn, I tried to challenge the stereotypes of Africa and Congo, by comparing our level of safety in Congo to that of any major US city, for example. Or I would point out the unearned privileges that come with our white skin, and I’d talk about my personal commitment to collaborating for positive change at home and abroad. For me it’s not an either/or, it’s a both/and.

Ari and I spent two weeks in Congo during our first trip together. As outsiders, there is always much to absorb and process but I knew she was ready to embrace the experience after years of working with me in so many other international contexts. While I attended meetings and conducted research, she spent every day planning and delivering art and educational activities at the daycare for children who came with their injured mothers to the hospital. This was meaningful and great fun for her and the kids. But the daily exposure to people’s pain and suffering, individual’s legitimate pleas for money or food or travel to the US, the constant stares we drew, our constrained movement through masses of people on crammed streets trying to negotiate daily life, eventually took its toll.

There were late night tears and feelings of helplessness to work through, which I tried to counteract with hugs and discussion about the luxury and ineffectualness of white guilt, and our limited outsider “gaze” which sometimes overlooks all that is functional, healthy, and positive in Congo. I explained that if the women we were meeting and serving had hope, then we must have hope, too.

Our evenings spent with local youth her age, sharing meals, learning about each others cultures, and discussing politics in the Congo and US created new friendships and helped all of us better understand individual and global complexities. These interactions gave Ari perspective as these young men and women talked about not just their struggles but successes and pride for their country and people.

While I anticipated the difficulties Ari might have in Congo, I was not prepared for the negative reaction she would receive at home from some teachers and peers. This was actually a trend during her junior high and high school years in rural, central Pennsylvania where over 96% of the county population is white. Given her trips with me out of the country, she was quickly labeled “that Africa girl” and judged harshly for doing work abroad instead of in the US because, as her critics stated, “We have problems here, too, you know.”

Her close friends could not relate to these international experiences and most of her teachers expressed little to no interest or understanding. We were already treated as outsiders because we were not native to the area. I had not grown up here or graduated from the local high school. Our affiliation with the university and travel to non-tourist destinations in the global south further set us apart. As a parent, I never anticipated that giving my child a global perspective would somehow backfire – especially in a space dedicated to education. These were harsh lessons for her at a young age. But when we examined them through the lens of privilege, a larger perspective emerged. Now Ari was herself experiencing, to a certain extent, the outsiders’ gaze of unchecked whiteness, stereotypes, and American exceptionalism.

Navigating this situation and reconciling the tensions that are bound up in privilege, requires a constant introspection about how we, as white Westerners, might be positioned as dominant in a particular circumstance and marginalized in another. My tools for this process are found in feminisms, that help me think critically about the racialized-self and my position and complicitness in the oppression of others. Another tool in my toolbox is the African concept of Ubuntu.

Arianna was born in 1993, the same year South Africa ratified an Interim Constitution, which was followed in 1994 by the country’s first democratic elections and the historic selection of Nelson Mandela as president. As her mother, it is my prerogative to symbolically link these two very historic events in the narrative of her life. In the last quotation of the Constitution it states, “There is a need for understanding but not for vengeance, a need for reparation but not for retaliation, a need for Ubuntu but not for victimization”. The philosophy and tradition of Ubuntu is about our connected humanity. It was popularized by Desmond Tutu in his 1999 book, No Future without Forgiveness.

“A person with Ubuntu is open and available to others, affirming of others, does not feel threatened that others are able and good, based from a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole and is diminished when others are humiliated or diminished, when others are tortured or oppressed.”

When I think about various forms of privilege and my position as dominant or marginalized, Ubuntu gives me an added depth of understanding. It reminds me that in the pursuit for human rights and freedoms, for social justice through the dismantling of oppression, we must always be guided and inspired by human dignity and the preservation of our collective humanness. My daughter and I try to realize this in our work with, for, and in service to, others. It helps us stay grounded, centered, humbled and with our own privilege in check.

As a parent, I’ve tried to model a consistent life ethic that draws from feminism and Ubuntu to inform all aspects of our personal and professional, public and private lives. It’s fraught with tensions, contradictions, generation gaps, and hypocrisies as well as great meaning and joy. So I will close not with answers but a question, inspired by Arianna’s tattoo, “How can each of us find ourselves through selflessness?”

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MLK Words to Inspire beyond a Single Day

It’s easy to recognize Martin Luther King, Jr. once a year on his birthday in January. The sad reality is that most of us in the U.S. don’t really understand his mission for justice and associate him with the struggle for racial equality only. Even fewer of us know about, let alone follow his example to dismantle what he called “the triple evils”: racism, extreme materialism, and militarism. The recent deaths of unarmed black youth by white police officers represent the tragic legacy that we have created for ourselves.

His last book, written in 1967, “Where Do We Go from Here, Chaos or Community?”* is now the urgent and critical question of our time. We must unite to change systems and institutions built on and sustained by white supremacy.

“Let us be those creative dissenters who will call our beloved nation to a higher destiny, to a new plateau of compassion, to a more noble expression of humanness.”                          – Martin Luther King, Jr.

* My 17-year-old nephew gave me a copy of this book for Christmas. That’s remarkable in-and-of-itself. He was on a Civil Rights service-learning trip in Alabama with a youth group from Milwaukee when he bought it for his activist Auntie. This speaks to his character, and the positive influence of his parents and a very cool older sister. Thanks, David!

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Watch My France 24 TV Interview on Rape as a Weapon of War in Congo

It was a pleasure to participate in this France 24 discussion yesterday in honor of Dr. Mukwege’s receipt of The Sakharov Prize. The host was Francois Picard.  Panelists included Bineta Diop, Founder of Femmes Afrique Solidaritie; Julie Owono of Internet Without Borders; and Natasha Henry, Gender Specialist and Writer.

Watch Part 2 Here:  http://www.france24.com/en/20141022-2014-debate-dr-congo-mukwege-women-violence-part-2/

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“G.I. Joes & Army Hoes” College Parties Miss the Mark

gi-joe-saturdayJackson Katz, an educator and leader in gender violence prevention (www.jacksonkatz.com), spoke at our campus last week to a full auditorium. Like many faculty, I use his videos on media portrayals of masculinity to help students consider what it means to “be a man” in this culture. His examples from hip-hop, recent events in the NFL, and popular film depict glorified images of hyper-masculine men characterized by aggressive, demeaning, often violent behavior, especially towards women.

His message hit close to home when after the lecture a student explained to me that a fraternity was planning to host a “G.I. Joes and Army Hoes” party. Yes, that’s right – dressing up like a testosterone-crazed Rambo and a “whore” in camouflage is considered entertainment. So much for 200,000 years of human evolution. This is fraught with so many layers of gender stereotypes, exploitation, sexual and personal insecurities, dysfunctional notions of intimate relationships, and heteronormativity, it’s hard to know where to begin.

A quick search on the internet turned up 74,100 results Bar-Rumba-GI-Joe-212x300for “G.I. Joes and Army Hoes Costume Ideas” including endless party pics and posters for events at bars (see above), indicating a popularity beyond campuses. At collegepartyguru.com it states,

“Most people have the utmost respect for military personnel and like to do what they can to show their respect. Others simply like the clothing they  wear and the thought of being able to carry a fully automatic rifle without any legal repercussions. With the GI Joe and Army Hoes party, you’ll get the chance to both honor the country’s military forces and dress yourself up in the military attire of your choice.”

“Hoe” is slang for “whore.” But what exactly does that mean? According to urbandictionary.com, she is,

A woman that sleeps with everyone but YOU!!!!!” Followed by, “SEE: SLUT – A woman that sleeps with everyone.”

In other definitions, whore is equated with prostitute. It is beyond the scope of this blog but both of these terms deserve, and have received, much critical scrutiny as they are offensive and derogatory to people who are in fact, sex workers. There is a difference.

According to collegepartyguru.com, this is what the Army Hoe should wear.

2fcf52f9-ec6b-4161-b1fa-5835f3ae5f70_resize-1Let’s start with the Army hoes, since they can have all the fun they want with this. Costume shops all over the internet sell variations on all walks of military uniforms. From two-piece camo-designed skirt and tops to a more dress-like variation on any military uniform (complete with plenty of cleavage), the possibilities seem endless…. Since you want to honor your military in the best way, you may want to go with something as slutty and as revealing as possible.”

I wondered what the US Army would have to say, especially given recent revelations about the extent of sexual assault in the military and their own disconnect between stated values and actual behavior. According to their Sexual Harassment, Assault Response and Prevention website (http://www.sexualassault.army.mil) and their I. A.M. Strong campaign, a soldier must do the following:

“When I recognize a threat to my fellow Soldiers, I will have the personal courage to INTERVENE and prevent sexual assault. I will condemn acts of sexual harassment. I will not abide obscene gestures, language, or behavior. I am a Warrior and a member of a team. I will INTERVENE.

You are my brother, my sister, my fellow Soldier. It is my duty to stand up for you, no matter the time or place. I will take ACTION. I will do what’s right. I will prevent sexual harassment and sexual assault. I will not tolerate sexually  offensive behavior. I will ACT.

We are American Soldiers, MOTIVATED to keep our fellow Soldiers safe. It is our mission to prevent sexual harassment and sexual assault. We will denounce sexual misconduct. As Soldiers, we are all MOTIVATED to take action. We are strongest…together.”

So much for G.I. Joes and Army Hoes as an honorable and respectful tribute to the US military.

What’s going on here? Why this theme? How is this fun? I posed these questions to my 300-level Human Development and Family Studies class the next day. Here’s what came out of our discussion:

1) The concept of G.I. Joes and Whores represents heterosexual gender norm extremes that feel edgy and risqué (maybe rebellious?) but are exploitative and objectify both men and women.

2) Men and women are socially awkward and need gimmicks such as themed parties with alcohol in order to interact. Dressing up will potentially draw desired attention from the opposite and same sex but drunkenness increases the likelihood of sexual harassment and assault.

3) Performing the “whore” provides women with a false sense of power over men if her attractiveness enables her to refuse or accept the advances of males.

4) Dressing like GI Joe is an excuse to take on a physically aggressive (perhaps homoerotic?), tough-guy stance toward other men and a sexually aggressive persona towards women.

5) In a culture of repressed sexuality (i.e., sex is everywhere, sex sells, be sexy, but don’t have casual and/or premarital sex), performing the stereotypical whore enables young women to rebel against the “good girl” gender script and exert some other aspect of her sexual self.

This analysis is not exhaustive. Our class was only 75 minutes. But it provides a window into quite dysfunctional cultural attitudes regarding sexuality and gender as represented here by hyper-masculine men and overtly sexualized women, both ironically devoid of anything honorable. Our class discussion, however, is proof that engaging students on these topics leads to critical analysis and perhaps introspection. In fact, campus administrators spoke with greek-life student leaders about the upcoming party, drawing on the messages of Jackson Katz. After that meeting, and on their own accord, the students cancelled the event.

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