Teaching about Rape as a Weapon of War and Genocide

The following are my comments, meant to serve as a prompt, to a group of 14 international scholars invited to Oxford University March 8-12 to discuss how we teach about rape as a weapon of war and genocide. We were convened by Drs. Carol Rittner and John Roth, both esteemed and prolific scholars of Holocaust and Genocide Studies.   

When I considered, for the purposes of this seminar, which histories and experiences, places and contexts of sexualized violence should be taught, my first thought was, “Perhaps teach what you know best.” But when I consider what I know best, which is DR Congo, I recognize that I have privileged one location, people, and violence over others. Sharing such pedagogical dilemmas with students, in my experience, provides a platform for briefly acknowledging other global contexts, the complexities of this topic, and limitations of the classroom.  Adding to this an admission of my fallibility as an instructor provides an opportunity to position myself relative to the students and communicate my expectation for bi-directional learning. I can then problematize my understanding of sexualized violence as an advantaged, white, “outsider” to the experience and the country. Modeling this reflexivity and critical humility seems to earn students’ trust and helps shape positive classroom dynamics and individual receptiveness to difficult subject matter.

Before launching into the realities of the DR Congo, I first try to meet students “where they are” by asking them how sexualized violence, real or feared, has shaped their lives. I ask  students, for example, how they navigate physical spaces. Do they avoid walking alone after dark to their apartments or cars? Are there safe and unsafe places they occupy or travel through in the community?  How does skin tone or sexual orientation or gender or other social classifications and markers make them more or less accepted or safe in these spaces?  This is an opportunity to remind students of Bronfenbrenner’s Ecological Systems Theory (1979) and its utility for helping us understand the complexities of human phenomena by considering micro- to macro-level factors.  At this micro-level, I might also consider the place and context of “the body” as the physical location for violence, instead of nation, for example, and pose, “Why are women’s and men’s bodies the targets of sexual assault in the US military? Why are women’s bodies the battlefield in DR Congo?”

As someone who studies human development, I am also inclined to think about stages of maturity and cognition of those we teach and what child development can tell us about 18-year-olds and what we can expect of them at this point in their young lives. As a feminist, I also think critically about individual development in a neoliberal societal and university context and wonder how this has shaped students’ attitudes toward learning.  If I teach about sexualized violence, will I encounter resistance? What’s at the source of individual openness or rigidity to these gendered issues?

At the macro-level, I contextualize Congo by considering its historical context and drawing parallels between this and what’s happening in our own backyard with sexualized violence in the US military or against Native American women living on reservations. By bringing it home, I can better avoid misconstruing atrocity as something that only happens “over there” and perpetuating the stereotype of a “dark continent.” When considering which histories and experiences, places and contexts, I must also problematize conceptualizations such as “rape as a weapon of war,” and include discussion of conflicts when rape was not present. In my own teaching, I need to better connect the dots between global warming, sexualized violence, and the battle for natural resources – think firewood, conflict minerals, and water.  We should probably all prioritize climate change in our work for obvious reasons.

I feel as if I’m just fantasizing now about the ideal teaching scenario but let’s keep going…..so in the spirit of Chandra Mohanty (2006), Patricia Hill Collins (1990), and Naomi Klein (2007), in the future I will include questions about sexualized violence that draw links to neoliberalism, matrices of oppression, the re-creation of empire and disaster capitalism.  More than a fantasy, how about we, those of us seated around this seminar table, start asking the most radical of questions which subvert, resist, and disrupt the discourse on genocide and rape?

My version of feminism and feminist pedagogy requires an ethic of care, reflexivity, and critical humility both in and out of the classroom. When considering which histories, experiences, places and contexts of sexualized violence to teach, it will always be part of a larger anti-genocide and human rights project ultimately framed by 2 words: “Never again.”





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Understanding the Experiences of Congolese Women with Children Born from Rape: Data Analysis – Day 3

I was fortunate to have some time yesterday and today with Nita Evele (Director of Congo Global Action) at the Hear Her Voice advocacy event in Washington, DC. It was an honor to speak on a panel about Women in Conflict with her and Niemat Ahmadi, the Director of the Darfur Women Action Group. They are both tireless crusaders for peace in their countries. 

Nita and I have served on panels together before but have not had much time to talk. We were able to carve out a few minutes to chat about my research project and get her insights about some of the findings. 

I wanted to know WHY the women linked economic independence to ending stigma. And I wanted to know why people stigmatize others to begin with (more on her response later). Here’s what I learned. While this is new to me, I understand that perhaps this is not new information for some readers. My apologies if I have missed some latest research. I appreciate people’s patience with my learning curve. 

Nita explained that when a woman doesn’t have to beg or rely on the generosity of others for housing and food, she will be respected, to some degree, by people around her. Having means translates into a higher status – a pretty universal human experience. But interestingly enough, ending stigma is more about the woman taking back her own power and finding pride in her ability to provide for herself and her children. This enables her to care less about what other people think. Rather than expecting others to change their attitudes about her, she changes her attitude about herself. Brilliant! 

In my mind, then, there are direct policy and practice implications. Want to lessen the devastating stigmatization of rape survivors? Facilitate a woman’s path to economic empowerment. Or, approached a bit differently….Want to reduce poverty? Terrific. An added benefit will be a woman’s improved self-image and a little less sting in public insults or intentional shaming.  

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Understanding the Experiences of Congolese Women with Children Born from Rape: Data Analysis – Day 2

I’ve made it through the first thorough read of the transcripts for all 5 focus groups. The margins are filled with notations and I’ve gone back through each a couple of times to get a sense of “the whole.” I used the original set of interview questions as a guide for organizing the themes that are emerging from the data. There is much consistency across groups in their discussions and answers to the questions. What’s obvious is the power of stigma and how adversely it impacts the lives of the women and their children. It’s this particular injustice that sends me through the roof when I read about the shaming and rejection they experience.

It’s early in the analysis but I already see what’s missing in the data. While the women detail the implications of stigma, they give little insight into WHY rape carries such a heavy stigma. This gets tricky as I immediately jump to my Western feminist viewpoint which indicts patriarchy and narrow gender scripts informed by Christianity, etc. etc. etc. This may be a piece to the puzzle but I’m the outsider so I must turn to African feminists for perspective and of course, previous research. That said, what I’ve read so far from African feminists is quite divided in their theoretical standpoints. More on this later.

What’s also troubling and not a surprise, is the internalization of the stigma by the majority of the mothers so that they are both the victim and purveyor of harsh shaming and interactions. This of course is complicated greatly by their own trauma but the women do not address this and I didn’t ask. Another interesting observation is that the women overwhelmingly identify poverty as a culprit for their stigma and economic independence as the solution. In other words, if a woman can provide for herself and her family (and no longer need to rely on the generosity of others for housing and food), and be “successful,” she will be respected by others and the stigma will end. This is not a link I anticipated and will require some unpacking. What’s interesting is that the burden is on them to end the stigma. There was little mention that others should take responsibility and cease casting stones.

Here are the notes from my analysis thus far:

Focus Group Emerging Themes

1) Is there a stigma associated with being a mother of a child of rape? Is there a stigma for the child?

Terrible stigma for both mother and child.

For child, labeled as Interahamwe which is a terrible insult. Implications:

- insulted by other children

-not accepted in community

- mother views child as burden, can’t meet basic needs of food, clothes, etc.

- predicted to become like father or Interahamwe (ruthless, murderer)

- other children won’t play with him/her or share food

- beaten by other children

- beaten by mother, physically separated from siblings, made to eat alone

- scapegoat for other children’s mistakes

This stigma + trauma + poverty leads to desperation.

Coping with stigma:

- abortion

- wishing child would die

- it’s not our fault that we get such children

- tell themselves that child could be comfort to them

- powerless against it, no choice about being stigmatized (fate?)

- if society accepts or stops stigmatizing her, she can better accept child

- cry

- keep children inside to protect them from others

- lie to kids about their fathers

- counseling can help

2) Are these women/children accepted or rejected by others? Why?

 Women and children are overwhelmingly rejected.

The price of stigma (overall suffering):

- rejected with no place to go

- husbands may divorce mother

- families don’t want the children around

- no support or assistance (so can’t provide for basic needs), must resort to begging

- not accepted by community

- instructed to take the children back to the father

- insulted, labeled as “raped woman”, publicly humiliated by people laughing at them, pointing, neglecting them

- ashamed

- less than human

- exploitation by men (sex for housing)

- assumed to be contaminated with HIV+ or with other STIs

- feel alone, isolated

3) Is it possible to hide that you are a child of rape? Is it possible for a woman to hide the fact that her child is born of sexual violence?

            Do women ever give birth alone to conceal a pregnancy due to rape?

 Difficult to conceal. Other children will tell the child. Difficult for a woman to hide – others seem to know. Women do prefer to give birth at home as a way to hide rape.

 4) Do women give special names to these children? Like what?

Names are very symbolic.

- some names are chosen to avoid possible detection of child born from rape (Rose or Vanessa)

- symbols of hope: Ushindi=victory; Amani=Peace

- their condition: Mateseo=suffering; Patience;

- their fate: Luck or Chance; Ishara=miracle; Baracka=blessing from God; Divine=because child comes from God; Gift=gift from            God; Ashuza=an answer from Jesus; Fahida=prophet because it is the will of God to have such a child

5) Do you think most women accept or reject their children? Why? How can you tell?

- Most women reject but they are conflicted

- Even if they do accept, they won’t value or love the child the same as the others because it came from trouble and hardship

- Counseling makes a difference

- Poverty causes them to reject

- Men can cause them to reject

6) What is the relationship like between a mother and child when she accepts the child? Is it the same as the relationship she has with her other children?

- very few women could accept the child and love it/give it the same value as the other kids

- if community accepts her, she can live in peace with the child (not the same as acceptance)

7) What is the relationship like between a mother and child when she rejects the child? Is she violent? Does she neglect the child?

 - Women may be violent, insult the child, withhold food.

- pushes child away so doesn’t have to answer questions about the father

- child become scapegoat for other children’s mistakes

8) Does ethnicity of the perpetrator matter? Sex of the child?

Ethnicity matters but sex of the child does not.

- If Interahamwe then not part of the tribe and will be like father – a bad person, a killer.

 9) Do some women try to end their pregnancies? Why or why not? How is that viewed by others?

 The perception is that most women try to have an abortion because the children make life difficult. But there are several reasons why they don’t end up having an abortion.

- abortion is a sin

- hope that the child may be a big help in the future

- hope that the child might be great person if God blesses

-fearful that she will die

-want the child

-worried doctor will refuse or they will be found out

Rational for abortion:

- avoid another mouth to feed

- increases chances of getting married

- avoid stigma

10) What services are needed for the women? Children?  Explain.

 -Women need housing.

-Panzi is a refuge providing safety and place of acceptance (very appreciative of Dr. M) but also outs them as raped women

- Want someone to support them (financially). Pay for housing or school fees because poverty is a trigger.

11) What are hopes for kids? Moms?



help others

help the mom

be president, priest, teacher, doctor, member of parliament

learn English

go to US or Europe


get respect

be independent

have an education

have a small business (sewing)

12) What else would help end the stigma associated with these women and children?

- If a woman is independent, this will help end the stigma.

- If society accepts the woman then she and child can live in peace (doesn’t indicate that she         will accept)

- If she’s accepted, she can forget the situation

- Poverty is a problem (trigger)

Overall observations:

Religion/faith permeates experience

Seems to be a certain fatalism (if society accepts her then she can accept her child? “If god provides…”, “nothing can end stigma”, “one day god will bless me”, “their fate is to be rejected”)

Wants someone to support her, provide assistance

If she isn’t dependent, this will end stigma, people’s perceptions of her will change

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Understanding the Experiences of Congolese Women with Children Born from Rape: Data Analysis – Day 1

Today I immersed myself in the transcript from the first focus group that I facilitated at Panzi hospital in the fall of 2012. As I read their discussion, I had in front of me a picture of the group. Margerita is 18, Solange 18, Noela 19, Emily 19 and Sylvia 18. These are not their real names. They were asked to pick aliases so we can protect their identities, an activity they seemed to enjoy and one of the lighter moments in our time together. These ages may not be accurate either. Several of these girls looks younger than 18 but sometimes people don’t know their actual birthday and given they had to be 18 to participate, they may have fudged the numbers a bit. These girls just wanted to talk – and have someone listen.  In a setting like this and given the circumstances, 18 as the age for consent seems a bit ludicrous.

I trained and hired a young Congolese woman to run the focus groups, let’s call her Sara, and I hired my long-time young friend Ali to translate. Sara is herself a survivor, with two small children, each born from a separate attack. She accepts her young son who is fathered by a Congolese perpetrator but struggles to accept the daughter whose father is a Rwandan or as she describes him, “Interahamwe.” Interahamwe were overwhelmingly identified by survivors in this project as the perpetrators of the attacks. This was true in my previous research project, too. Interahamwe are known to have carried out the 1994 genocide.

I offered nothing in return for participation in the focus group – no money or gifts. The girls were informed by Panzi hospital staff that I was running a group and looking for volunteers to talk about the experience of having a child born from violence. These young ladies gave informed consent and several had their babies or small children in tow. The girls had only some primary school education and they had been at the hospital any where from 4 months to 3 years.

For this first read, I am not thinking about theoretical frameworks or methodologies. I’m simply interested in circling key words, writing in the margins the topics discussed, and underlining remarkable quotes. Here’s are some of their words in no particular order and with no interpretation. Please do not infer judgments based on these raw data. These quotes are a snapshot that must be contextualized and considered alongside all data from the focus groups. Given the small sample size, generalizability is also not possible:

“Sometimes she says, ‘Well, I’m gonna kill this child’ and another time she feels mercy on the child and she keeps the child alive.”

“Shall I kill this child or what can I do? Where shall I take this child?”

“It is not our will that we get such children. We have many trouble with those children and our families do not want us to stay with those children. We don’t receive any assistance and we don’t receive any support.”

“Both children and their mothers have got a bad reputation. They are not accepted in the community. And people stigmatize them. They say, ‘Okay these are bad people. These children do not belong to our tribe. You return it to their fathers, so you return these children to their fathers, the Interahamwes. We don’t need them here so you bring them back where you get them.'”

“She was ashamed because she was impregnated by the Interahamwe.”

“I named my child Baracka because it is a blessing from God.”

“I have named my child Ushindi which means victory.”

“Most of the children are rejected. Sometimes you can happen to accept a child but you will not give it the same value as the other children. You not give that child born from rape the same value you give to other children because you got her mainly from trouble and hardship.”

“I can give all the children the same value.”

“I will not love this child as I love my other children.”

“I can lover her more than I love the other children because, you know, I have been going through many difficulties and challenges before I got her.”

“You know, when you are pregnant, and you got the pregnancy from rape, there is no one who is going to encourage you in this society. You will be going from discouragement to discouragement. You have no support. You have no relatives, you have no parents to help you.”

“What makes me not to make an abortion, because I had in mind that probably this child will be a great help for me in the future.”

“If God blesses that child he can become a great person.”

“It doesn’t matter when a child is a boy or a girl. But you know the people in the society think that as this child is from Interahamwes…you now Interahamwes are violent persons, you know they have a wild mind, they can kill, they can torture and everything so the people in society think that, ‘Okay, this child is from Interahamwe and when she’s gonna grow up, she’s gonna behave in the same way as her father.'”

“We neglect ourselves because we don’t think we are normal persons.”

“If the war is finished in the country it can help end the stigma. We need to stop the rape, and then the stigma will no longer be there. When I am here and I’m just living in peace, I can accept my child.”

“I want my child to grow up and become generous. I wan him to be helping other people.”

“I want to be respected. I want to be honored. And I want my child to live a good life. And you know, people can respect me if I go to school and if I get a job. So respect comes from education and work.”

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Questions We Must Keep Asking about Sexualized Violence in the DR Congo

Why are women’s bodies a battleground?

How are trauma and poverty factors in perpetration and victimization?

What is the supply chain not just for conflict minerals but for weapons?

How do gender norms contribute to sexualized violence?

Who is funding armed groups?

Who are the individuals outside of the DRC that provide leadership and strategy to armed groups?

Impunity for perpetrators is generalized and linked to failed and/or corrupt legal systems in the DRC. Is this true at all levels from local to national? What other factors contribute to impunity?

Who is benefitting financially from the crisis in eastern DRC?

What is the role of neighboring countries in the violence?

How do land rights, corporate interests, control over mineral resources, citizenship rights, and displacement contribute to sexualized violence?

How do Christian beliefs, pastors, churches intersect with sexualized violence?

What fuels the stigma associated with rape?

Why do some husbands accept their wives who have been violated?

What is the future of children born from rape?


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Dr. Mukwege’s US Tour


It’s always a special pleasure to spend time with Dr. Mukwege. Peter Frantz, executive director of Panzi Foundation and I are pictured here with the good doctor during his recent trip to Los Angeles for events organized by our friends at Jewish World Watch.  Dinner at our hotel went on for 3 hours as we strategized about the future of Panzi Foundation USA and our efforts to help Dr. Mukwege realize his vision for Panzi hospital. The three of us co-founded PFUSA in 2010 – a privilege and honor for me and Peter. Prior to LA, Dr. Mukwege made a stop at the University of Michigan. Meetings in New York and Washington, DC were also on his hectic schedule. He received the Civil Courage Prize on Oct. 15. Read his acceptance speech here:  http://www.panzihospital.org/archives/1946

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1st Ten Days at Panzi Hospital


This is the view this Sunday morning in Bukavu as Ari and I have breakfast overlooking Lake Kivu. She pointed out that I went from Oslo, Norway (where I spoke at the Oslo Freedom Forum), a country at the top of most social and economic indexes, to Congo, a country at the bottom of most world rankings. The contrast is striking – and appalling.

It’s been a busy and productive 10 days at Panzi hospital. I arrived in time for the first Panzi Hospital partner and donor conference, May 23-25. Over 60 international and local organizations, Panzi Foundation DRC, and hospital staff came together to talk about the current status of Panzi and strategize for the future. Organizations included UNICEF, Stephen Lewis Foundation, Norwegian Church Aid (NCA), the Norwegian government, PMU and Lakarmissionen of Sweden among others. This was a wonderful opportunity for all of us to meet face-to-face, share our programs, and discuss collaborations. We left the conference inspired and excited about new synergies.

After the conference, Ari arrived in Bukavu after 3 weeks of working on PSU projects in Kenya. It’s great to be back together in Congo!

Everyday, at 6:45 am, Ari and I walk about 10 minutes from our hotel up to Nguba market to catch a ride to the hospital with Susanne from Sweden who works for Panzi Foundation DRC as a project coordinator. We arrive at the hospital about 7:35 to begin the workday.

Ari meets Emanuel, her 17-year-old “little brother” who translates and co-teaches with her at Aire de Jeux. Their days are filled with about 40 toddlers and babies in the morning and 40 elementary age kids in the afternoon, in addition to lots of glitter, glue, paint, construction paper, crayons and other art supplies. Emanuel worked with Ari in 2010 also. They are like siblings and really enjoy the time together, although they are exhausted by late afternoon.

Yesterday, as it was Saturday and there were no children at Aire de Jeux, Ari and Emanuel spent the day at his home cooking a feast of chapati (fried bread), guacamole, sweet waffles and mandazi (similar to a binet). Emanuel’s mother joined in the cooking in their outdoor kitchen. We all enjoyed stuffing ourselves and Ari has become quite the cook of African cuisine.

I spend most of time working on program development which means I’m either in meetings or on the computer (not that much different from home!). Panzi Foundation USA (PFUSA) continues to work closely with Panzi Foundation DRC, PMU, and NCA on Maison Dorcas III, a transit house for 200 women and children who have finished treatment at the hospital but have no where to go. This new building will provide housing, literacy and skills based programming as well as instruction on women’s human and legal rights. It is slated to be finished in 2014. PFUSA received a large grant (not officially announced yet) to help support programing at MDIII so much of my time has been spent working with partners to determine the best implementation strategy for the grant.

I am also working with Panzi hospital to pull together a list of medical supplies needed at the hospital in order to secure another shipping container from MedShare in Atlanta. Peter Frantz, executive director of PFUSA, coordinates this and all we are doing on the US side. He will visit Panzi at the end of June.

Friday I met with the Congolese women, Beatrice, who oversees the basket-making enterprise and trains survivors at the hospital to make large shopping bags out of colorful plastic strips. Although not officially announced yet, PFUSA is collaborating with a US fair trade company that wants to market these on a small scale in the US. I am trying to get the process in place for this to happen. Because the company is fair trade, we need to know the source of the plastic strips. Beatrice and I and Ali, my trusty translator, will got the market tomorrow to visit the vendor and find out more. Should be interesting!

There is an Italian group that wants to help set up a workshop to make prostheses for people with amputated limbs. Right now, all that is available in Bukavu are artificial limbs made of wood that work only below the knee. While this workshop would certainly meet a need locally, there is much to be negotiated such as sustainability. It’s not enough to create the workshop and train a couple of people as salaries are needed, funding for the prosthetics, and other expenses to keep it going. Where will that money come from? I hope it’s Italy.

Of course there are all the local groups with projects that want to meet to discuss possible collaborations and who need money for their initiatives. They operate on virtually no budget, usually funding their work out of their own pockets, whether working with survivors of sexual violence or street children, for example. And then there are many individuals who have legitimate needs such as the mother of 10 who requires surgery for a life-threatening tumor that can only be removed at the hospital in Kigali, Rwanda, and the young student who works at the little shop across from the hospital but doesn’t have the money to take the national exam before high school graduation, and mothers who need school fees for their children. Every single day, usually multiple times a day, I am approached and asked if I personally can put money towards costs or if PFUSA can help. The need is great, the government is corrupt, the hospital is constantly searching for grants and donors to keep up with demand of its services. I’m only here for short amounts of time yet there are moments when I find the state of affairs defeating and overwhelming.

But, eating chapati with Emanuel’s family, and watching the way Dr. Mukwege takes time to hug the children who rush to greet him as he moves about the hospital, and hearing the women patients singing to pass time in the courtyard, remind me once again that I am fortunate to do this work.

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