When Susan Brownmiller wrote her seminal book “Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape” in 1975, she made the point that when there is insecurity in countries, such as war or civil unrest, one of the first social impacts is a rapid rise in the incidence of rape against women. A collapse of law and order has made women vulnerable since classical times. Now the phenomenon of rape in Africa seems to transcend what we normal y consider social unrest, with potentially significant damage of Africa societies in the years ahead.
Despite the official end of the war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 2003, the country is now considered by the United Nations to be “the rape capital of the world.” Margot Wallstrom, the UN’s special representative on sexual violence in DROC, urged the Security Council to punish rapists in DROC, but the perpetrators all too often escape punishment. Last year, more than 8,000 women were raped in DROC, most of them victims of gang rape.
The Harvard Humanitarian Initiative did a study showing that 60% of rape victims in South Kivu were gang raped by armed men, but an increasing number of rapes were being carried out by civilians. The assaults more often than not took place in the victim’s own home.
And this is not a phenomenon limited to DROC. In Kenya, rape was one of the effects of the election-related violence following the flawed December 2007 elections. The incidence of gang rape in the weeks after the elections rose sharply. The Nairobi Women’s Hospital reported at the time that rapes shot up from about four a day to as many as 10, and in one month, there were 140 cases of rape and defilement reported. Half the cases involved girls under the age of 18.
The potent ethnic issues the election of 2007 stirred up did indeed lead to widespread violence, but the rising level of rape was an issue long before that election. An April 2002 article in Kenya urged officeholders in the upcoming election to give more attention to the cultural indifference to rape in Kenya. Women’s activists at the time estimated that perhaps 10% or so of the women raped in Kenya reported their assaults, and that was long before the social explosion of late 2007-early 2008.
South Africa has long since moved past the violence of apartheid, achieving majority rule through peaceful elections in 1994. Nevertheless, in the 16 years since then, the country has experienced the highest rate of rape of any country not in armed conflict. Rape in South Africa is fueled by the practice known as “jackrolling,” named after a gang known as the “Jackrollers” who forcefully abducted women in black townships in 1987-88. This mostly youth phenomenon is almost always committed out in the open, and the perpetrators want to be seen.
Rape as an act of war in Rwanda is well documented. Numerous testimonies document the rapes, gang rapes, sexual torture and sexual slavery, in which women were held for days or even years and repeatedly raped. Many of the armed groups intended for their victims to become pregnant so that they could contaminate the ethnic genetic pool. The result involved husbands who survived the genocide rejecting their wives due to the shame of their carrying a child of rape. Unmarried women, including virgins prior to the rapes, became unmarriageable. Once can understand how this affected the Tutsi and Hutu communities.
Unfortunately, these situations are being seen again in today’s DROC. Clementine, a mother of eight, was given an ultimatum by her rapists, and she chose to accept rape rather than the murder of her husband. Her husband’s response was to leave her for another woman. Yvone, another wife and mother in the country, was gang-raped in front of her husband, who still lives with her but has in effect ended their marital relationship.
The cases of non-war rape by civilians who somehow feel free to rape on the rise on the continent and the strong traditions in many societies that causes rejection of raped women will split families and prevent many new families from being formed. If serious attention is not paid to preventing rape and dealing sensitively with its aftermath, social systems in African nations will be negatively impacted for years to come. The rise in single-parent families never signals social advancement, and indeed often leads to longstanding social ills. The strength of Africa is its family and social networks. If that is destroyed, so will the countries in which this happens. That must be taken more seriously by governments, donors and anyone else who can make a difference.