Fighting the silence around rape in Eastern DRC

Two documentaries about sexual violence as a weapon of war

Claske Dijkema, 3 November 2010

Two documentaries have been made about rape as a weapon of war in the ongoing conflict in the DRC, « The Greatest Silence:Rape in the Congo » and « Fighting the Silence: Sexual Violence against women in Congo ». Their titles suggest that one can be seen as a response to the other.

Silence refers here to the taboo that is associated with sexual violence. Rather than speaking out, women who have been victim of rape by armed soldiers prefer to keep it a secret. They risk being expelled by their families and husbands. The reasons are of course understandable, breaking cultural codes is very difficult and can be dangerous for one’s one position in society. However, if women and men collectively break this code and claim public space for being victim of sexual violence it can be a powerful tool for social transformation. An example that this is possible can be found if we look at the awareness that has been raised about HIV/Aids. It is no longer, or much less, of a taboo than it was 10-15 years ago.

What is the function of rape

The film « The Greatest Silence:Rape in Congo » poses the question why rape is being used as a weapon of war?

The Greatest Silence:Rape in Congo (official trailer

To answer this question, it is helpful to look its function. In addition to an atrocity, violence can also be interpreted as a kind of communication. What are the perpetrators saying through their acts? What systems and symbols are supporting their behavior?

1. Rape as a tool to control the population, forcing them to flee, terrorise them and punish them for alleged support of the enemy.

2. Women as sex slaves. Armed groups in Congo abduct women and girls to aide “the war effort.” They are taken hostage and kept as sex slaves. They perform domestic tasks such as preparing food and washing clothes within the camp.

3. Rape as a strategy to “destroy the enemy”. By raping a girl or woman from another group, one affirms its ethnic or cultural domination

4. Rape as a tool to humiliate the enemy. By raping women, the message that the perpetrators send out is also that men are failing to take care of their women. In this was it is also a strategy to humiliate the men (enemies) who are related to these women. They are hurt in their masculine roles of protectors of these women.

5. Rape as a consequence of the abuse of certain drugs that may remove inhibition and induce or heighten sexual desire.

The power of testimonies

According to the organisation Women Make Movies, “The Greatest Silence: Rape in Congo” has served as an inspiration for a 2008 U.N. Resolution classifying rape as a weapon of war.

“Fighting the silence: Sexual Violence against women in Congo” demonstrates the actions of local civil society organisations in Eastern Congo.

Fighting the Silence (official trailer

In the beginning of the film we see a fragment from radio Baraka. The programme hosts the voice of a young women from a local civil society organisation in the Fizi region who organises meetings, develops education programs and stages plays in communities so « women can see and hear for themselves and tell their secret ». Later in the film we can witness the interaction between women and sometimes men in these public gatherings. It is a powerful example of the way in which “breaking the silence” in a collective setting can be liberating and can create new links between members of the community. These public meetings have also achieved in some cases that men change their position towards the women that are victims of rape.