Feedback Loops and Sucking Vortexes

I’ve been curious for a long time about whether and how the “all rape all the time” characterization of the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo affects the situation on the ground there.

My concern is that the narrow focus on sexual violence as the defining feature of the conflict is both an input and an output of a cycle where:

  1. Rape atrocity stories sell newspapers, drive blog traffic, etc.;
  2. Journalists and other observers focus their reporting on sexual violence to draw audiences and paychecks;
  3. Donors prefer to fund initiatives aimed at combating sexual violence because that’s the high profile issue in all the papers;
  4. Organizations providing services in the field or research and advocacy target more of their programs towards sexual violence to attract donors;
  5. Sources providing information to reporters and NGOs on the ground highlight the very real phenomenon of sexual violence rather than other, equally severe violations because they know that’s what everyone’s interested in. This information then gets used to justify the choices made at steps 2, 3, and 4.

Lather, rinse, repeat.

A recent SIDA working paper by Maria Eriksson Baaz and Maria Stern fills in another potential piece of this cycle. Its authors argue that:

“Focusing and continuing to channel resources to SGBV specifically—whether in terms of prevention, access to justice or services to survivors—contributes to rape allegations becoming increasingly entangled in survival strategies.”

Their conclusions arise out of interviews conducted with soldiers and with local organizations in the eastern DRC between 2006 and 2009. In their more recent interviews, they began encountering references to what they call “the commercialization of rape.” They note two manifestations of this phenomenon: accusations of rape as an “income-earning strategy” (essentially, extortion) and allegations of rape for access to services and opportunities earmarked for survivors.

The Marias explain the second trend:

“The lack of basic health services and the lack of resources for women who have not been raped—plus the widespread poverty—have created a situation in which destitute women and girls who are not rape survivors sometimes present themselves as rape victims in order gain access to these opportunities.”

Leaving alone the issue of what the disproportionate focus on rape at the expense of other serious violations means for the victims who can’t claim the status of rape survivor, I hope I’m not the only one worried about how this affects our ability to talk accurately about the scope and character of sexual violence in the region.

The entire report is well worth a read, as it discusses a number of other interesting and under-explored issues, including the sometimes perverse incentive structure of demobilization efforts.

Hattip to Patrick at Benetech for forwarding the report.

Kate Cronin-Furman


  1. Okey-doke. So what do you want me to tell rape survivors, then? Seriously. This would be in Darfur but should I tell them that, well, see these social science types don't want us to concentrate on this narrow thing, you see. Sexual violence.

    Gah. I get your point but wtf? WTF do you want people to do? Would you please put your oh-so-wise answers in a handy-dandy pamphlet (or encyclopedia). Will be more-than-happy to translate & pass out for you.

    Goddamn it. I'm sick of this. I know you have a point – but….what to do?

  2. Susan,
    Its frustrating, for Wronging Rights as much as for you.
    Just because there is nothing else to be done (and that's not true) is not reason enough to keep doing what might be hurting.
    Wronging Rights, keep it up, its not you that is causing problems. Its not Susan either.

    Sometimes we all need a hug.

  3. What the Marias and Wronging Rights cite is spot on, and it has operational consequences.

    It changes whether health funding is directed to rape hospitals, rather than maternal health (or normal hospitals). It means that there is legal support for the families of rape victims and not murder victims. The specialisation of the sector unfortunately weakens social services in the long-term, and seems unfair, illogical, and foreign in the eyes of many locals.

    When half of the news cast on local radio is about conferences and sensitizations sponsored by NGOs, people start to see it as more of an 'outside' thing, that doesn't concern them.

    I asked a member of our staff in Goma if he belonged to any associations: "When Hillary Clinton came and said there was 17 million for sexual violence, like all the other young people we formed a gender violence association." The amount of money in the field does encourage entrepreneurship (in the negative way)

    In terms of susan's question on what to do, I would suggest:

    ->more and better campaigns focused on preventing the specific causes of rape in a locally appropriate way, by people with the capacity to do it; including tackling social perceptions of women – root causes.
    ->stop building parallel judiciaries and medical services, which will backfire in the long term and undermine attempts to organize the health sector and judiciary. Strengthening judicial systems across the board will also help rape victims, and make accountability more of a dissuasion factor
    ->do reinforce specific psychosocial services across the board for trauma victims, with a special focus on sexual violence
    ->donors should realize that the law of diminishing returns is in full effect in the 2 kivus. Each new dollar particularly on these issues returns less than the one before; there is more bang for the buck on other issues, or SGBV in other provinces.

  4. Thanks for the comments all.

    Susan, I understand your irritation, but I think you've overstated the case here. No one is suggesting that sexual violence victims aren't deserving of attention and resources. But I think we (service providers, reporters, the broader concerned community in general) need to be more conscious of the possible impacts of our actions.

    Anonymous 1, I'll take that hug, thank you.

    Anonymous 2, if you're not too busy saving babies, which is what we assume all of our anonymous commenters do with their time, would you email me through the blog account? I am extremely interested in the phenomenon of parallel legal / judicial structures, and am possibly headed through Goma in the near future…

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