There is no shortage of reports or data documenting the abhorrent extent of sexual violence in the DRC. Women are targets working in the fields. Women are targets walking home. Women are targets virtually everywhere.
This article was updated at 9:45 EST, February 9th 2010, to fix typographical errors in the text.
Republic of Congo (DRC) has been torn by violent conflicts since its
independence from Belgium in 1960. Beginning in 1998, the Second Congo War involved
seven foreign armies, these major actors driven largely by desires for control over
natural resources, including diamonds, copper, zinc and coltan, these “economic
forces and mineral resources fueling the war”.
A peace accord in 2003 has not prevented sporadic fighting
nor have the international peacekeeping forces been able to prevent rebel
forces from intensifying assaults in the Ituri and North-Kivu provinces of the
country in recent times.
Along with these conflicts has come widespread violence aimed
at the civilian population, especially women.There is no shortage of reports or data documenting the
abhorrent extent of sexual violence in the DRC. Primarily meant to protect the
population, several reports show that armed forces have been complicit in sexual violence on many levels.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) in their 2009 report “Soldiers who rape, commanders who kill” looks
at the inability of the DRC government, military and judiciary to
stop rape and the complicity of some of these actors in perpetuating sexual
violence. Similarly, the group Doctors Without Borders (DWB) states, “more than
three quarters of the women that we have treated have been raped by unknown
armed soldiers.”In 2004, DWB
treated 270 rape victims over the course of the year in North Kivu. Today, they
treat that many victims of rape on average every month. While nearly 54 percent of those affected are ages 19 to 45, a startling 40 percent of victims
are girls under the age of 18. Women are targets working in the fields. Women
are targets walking home. Women are targets virtually everywhere.
Since 1999, the UN Mission in the DRC (MONUC) has
been on the ground trying to create peace. The UN has recently extended
the MONUC mandate until 31 May 2010, with the next few months specifically
aimed at protecting civilians as well as facilitating the disarmament,
demobilization and reintegration of Congolese armed groups and repatriation and
resettlement of foreign armed groups. For years now, DRC President Joseph
Kabila and MONUC have pushed
a “zero tolerance” policy against sexual violence and misconduct by
the armed forces. This objective
has obviously not been met. The Kimia II military operations (in Swahili and
Lingala, Peace II), which saw MONUC lending support to the DRC army (FARDC), despite
the army being implicated
in grave human rights violations, failing to stop sexual violence. Considered
by UN human rights actors, like Special Rapporteur Philip
Alston to be a “catastrophe” for human rights, Kimia II has been replaced
by the FARDC’s new operation “Amani
Leo” (“Peace Today”) which commenced in January 2010. It can only be hoped
that the renewed MONUC mandate and Amani Leo operations make some progress
towards the “zero tolerance” policy, which has seemed until now, just a policy on paper.
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The power of such a
zero tolerance policy, if implemented and effective, cannot be understated. It
is not simply a question of a completely unacceptable situation with regards to
women’s security. Central to the issue is the sheer lawlessness that results
when the armed forces are the perpetrators of violence. Some potentially effective strategies have been proposed to
achieve justice for victims and put an end to sexual violence, including by the Office
of the UN Senior Adviser and Coordinator on Sexual Violence in the DRC. Their
strategy talks of combating impunity for cases of sexual violence by
strengthening the judiciary and putting in force the DRC’s 2006 laws on sexual
violence. They also highlight the need to reduce vulnerability and exposure of
women to sexual violence, with more effective responses from security forces
and better vetting to exclude from security forces “individuals who lack
have been made directly to President Kabila from political leaders in the US
and Europe for an end to the sexual violence. During a visit to Goma, the
capital of North Kivu, in August of last year, Hillary Clinton pushed for “no
impunity for the sexual and gender-based violence” in her meeting with Kabila, after first
meeting with refugees at the Magunga camp. In December of last year, commenting on President Kabila’s
declarations against violence, the Swedish European Union Affairs Minister
Cecilia Malmstroem, whose country held the EU presidency until December of last
year, reiterated “Congolese
authorities are responsible for making sure the policy of zero tolerance is not
merely words, but is also translated into reality”.
This is not an entirely new step. The EU has long been calling for
an end to sexual violence in the DRC, with a resolution from January 2008
of the European Parliament noting that women in the eastern part of the DRC are
being “systematically attacked on an
unprecedented scale” with the atrocities against women structured around rape,
gang rape, sexual slavery and murder having “far-reaching consequences
including the physical and psychological destruction of women”. It further
notes that although the DRC Humanitarian Action Plan 2008 reported 32,353 rapes
during 2007, this was probably only a fraction of the total number.
Despite global pressure, reports on the ground are less
hopeful. According to Refugees
International,enforcement of the zero tolerance
policy “especially of senior commanders, remains effectively non-existent”. Considered a “lawless
world”, it is difficult to know what it will take
to put an end to the rapes. Justice is weak in the DRC. UN Resolutions 1325 (2000) and 1820 (2008) on women and peace and security explicitly call for
an end to sexual violence and demand the immediate end by all parties to
armed conflict of all acts of sexual violence against civilians with immediate
effect. Resolution 1820 specifically states that, among other things, rape and
other forms of sexual violence can constitute war crimes, crimes against
humanity or a constitutive act with respect to genocide. Yet, in practical
terms, on a day to day basis, where can women find refuge?
The complexity of addressing these issues should not be
underestimated. I am writing this piece now in an effort to join other NGOs, UN
agencies and activists from the international community pushing to make sure
that the past years of sexual violence do not remain the norm. I am writing as
a reminder that “zero-tolerance” does not simply mean a reduction in numbers
and must not only be words on paper. The global community MUST watch to ensure
that President Kabila’s commitment to the ELIMINATION of sexual violence is
Among the only contributions to the national dialogue taking place over racial justice and state violence was a card circulated in the exhibit hall by a group called the Radiance Foundation that read “All Lives Matter In & Out of the Womb.”
As one of the nation’s largest anti-choice groups launched its three-day conference in Herndon, Virginia, Thursday, a very different conversation was underway on the national stage.
Across the country, peaceful protests erupted over the police killings of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and Philando Castile in Falcon Heights, Minnesota.
As Rewire’s Imani Gandy has documented, the anti-choice movement has long attempted to appropriate the language of racial justice and the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag as part of a wider effort to shame Black women and cast abortion as “Black genocide.”
But at the National Right to Life Convention, the overriding response to last week’s police killings was silence. Among the only contributions to the national dialogue taking place over racial justice was a card circulated in the exhibit hall by a group called the Radiance Foundation that read “All lives matter In & Out of the womb.”
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Rewire asked convention director Jacki Ragan whether she thought the issue should have been raised explicitly at the conference.
“We are very single issue,” Ragan said. “We are here because of a threat to human life. We believe the unborn child is a human being from the moment of fertilization. We believe the disabled should have the same rights, [the] elderly should have the same rights, so we’re very single issue. So, no, I don’t really think it would be appropriate to address what had happened other than through prayer at the conference.”
At a prayer breakfast on Friday morning, after conference-goers awoke to the news five police officers had been killed by a gunman in Dallas, Rev. Dennis Kleinmann of St. Veronica Catholic Church in Chantilly, Virginia, prayed for guidance “to make this a better world, a world free of war and violence of every kind, including attacks on those who protect us.”
Ernest Ohlhoff, National Right to Life Committee outreach director, addressed the violence more directly.
“I don’t know if any of you heard the news this morning, but unfortunately we had another catastrophe in our country,” he said. “Five police officers in Dallas were killed in a shooting and [at least] six wounded, and I would ask you to pray for them and their families.”
No prayers were offered for Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, or their families.
“We need to have a national conversation about racism, homophobia, and transphobia,” said Alan Pelaez Lopez, a member of the organization Familia: Trans Queer Liberation Movement. “If these things do not happen, the nation, by definition, will have done nothing to support our communities.”
The same day of the Orlando Pulse nightclub shooting that would take the lives of 49 mostly Latino and LGBTQ-identified people, thousands of miles away in Santa Monica, California, a man was found with weapons, ammunition, and explosive-making materials in his car with plans to attend the annual Pride festival taking place in West Hollywood later that day.
But queer and trans people of color (QTPOC) say these responses are missing the mark, because what their communities really need are deeper conversations and more resources that address their specific experiences, including fewer police at Pride events.
House Democrats held a sit-in on gun control this week as a direct response to the Orlando shooting. Though Alan Pelaez Lopez—an Afro-Latinx, gender-nonconforming immigrant, poet, and member of the organization Familia: Trans Queer Liberation Movement—agrees that gun control is important and should be considered by Congress, they said it can also feel like the community affected by the shooting almost always gets erased from those discussions.
“We need to have a national conversation about racism, homophobia, and transphobia,” the poet said. “If these things do not happen, the nation, by definition, will have done nothing to support our communities.”
Rethinking ‘Pride’ for People of Color
In mid-May, Rewire reported on the National Queer Asian Pacific Islander Alliance (NQAPIA)’s week of action to #RedefineSecurity, which encouraged participants to reimagine what safety looked like in Asian and Pacific Islander communities, and called for them to push back against police presences at Pride events.
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Pride events and festivals take place each June to commemorate the Stonewall riots in New York City, a clash between police officers and members of the LGBTQ community—led by trans women of color—that would kickstart the modern LGBTQ movement.
Even after the Orlando shooting at a gay nightclub, NQAPIA organizing director Sasha W. told Rewire their stance on police at Pride events hasn’t changed, but only grown more resolute.
As an organizer working with queer and trans Muslim, South Asian, and Middle Eastern communities, Sasha W. said the populations they work with say that framing the Orlando shooting as a “terrorist attack” makes them feel “increasingly unsafe.”
“I think part of what we need to remember is to examine what ‘terror’ looked like in queer and trans communities over the course of our history in this country,” Sasha W. said. They cited the Stonewall riots and the inaction by the government during the HIV and AIDS epidemic as examples of some of the many ways the state has inflicted violence on queer and trans communities.
Sasha W. added that pointing blame at Daeshis too easy, and that the oppression queer and trans people face in the United States has always been state-sanctioned. “We have not historically faced ‘terror’ at the hands of Muslim people or brown people. That is not where our fear has come from,” they said.
What’s missing, they said, is a conversation about why police officers make certain people feel safe, and “interrogating where that privilege comes from.” In other words, there are communities who do not have to fear the police, who are not criminalized by them, and who are confident that cops will help them in need. These are not privileges experienced by many in queer and trans communities of color.
Asking the mainstream LGBTQ community to rethink their stance on police and institutions that have historically targeted and criminalized communities of color has been challenging for queer and trans people of color.
What’s become clear, according to Familia: Trans Queer Liberation Movement founder Jorge Gutierrez, is that after a tragedy like Orlando, white LGBTQ members want to feel united, but many don’t want to discuss how things like race and citizenship status affect feelings of safety. Instead, some will push for a greater police presence at events.
There have already been instances of white members of the LGBTQ community publicly shutting down conversations around racial justice. Advocates say the public needs to understand the broader context of this moment.
“The white LGBTQ community doesn’t face the criminalization and policing that our community faces every day. Not just at Pride, but every day, everywhere we go. That’s our life,” Gutierrez said. “If you don’t listen to us when it comes to these issues of safety, you’re not just erasing us from a tragedy that impacted us, but you’re really hurting us.”
As Gutierrez explained, in the hours after the shooting, some media coverage failed to mention Pulse was a gay club, failed to mention it was people of color who were killed on Latino night, and failed to mention that trans women were performing just before the shooting broke out. Gutierrez told Rewire he felt like his community and their pain was being erased, so his organization put together a video featuring queer and trans immigrants of color, including Lopez, to discuss their immediate feelings after the Pulse shooting—and many shared sentiments similar to Sasha W.’s and Lopez’s. One trans Latina said the shooting was “years in the making.”
“The video was important for us to release because the shooting was being framed as an isolated event that randomly happened, but we know that’s not true. We know that the United States has a history of hurting queer and trans people of color and we needed to produce our own media, with our own messaging, from our own people to tell people what really happened, the history that lead to it happening, and who it really impacted. We didn’t want our voices and our realities as immigrants, as undocumented people, as queer and trans people of color, erased,” Gutierrez said.
Without even factoring in an increase in law enforcement, Lopez told Rewire Pride already felt unsafe for people like them.
“I have experienced a lot of racism [at Pride events], the pulling of my hair from people walking behind me, and I have also been sexually harassed by white people who claim to want to experiment with being with a Black person,” Lopez said.
Though Lopez didn’t attendany Pride events in Los Angeles this year, they told Rewire that in previous years, there was already a large police presence at Pride events and as a “traumatized person” who has had many negative interactions with police officers, including being racially profiled and stopped and frisked, encountering law enforcement was scary.
“Seeing [cops] at Pride makes me remember that I am always a target because at no time has the police made me feel protected,” the poet said. “Signs of heavy police presence are really triggering to people who have developed post-traumatic stress disorder from violent interactions with the police, for undocumented communities, for transgender communities, for young people of color, and for formerly incarcerated individuals. When I think of security, I do not think of police.”
Another reason Lopez chose not to attend Pride this year: It was being sponsored by Wells Fargo. The banking corporation sponsors over 50 yearly Pride events and has been called a “longtime advocate of LGBT equality” by organizations like the Human Rights Campaign, which also lists Wells Fargo as a top-rated company on its Corporate Equality Index. But Wells Fargo has a history of investing in private prisons, including detention centers. Calls to drop Wells Fargo from Pride events have been unsuccessful. For queer immigrants like Lopez, attending Pride would mean “financially contributing” to the same corporation and system that they said killed their friends, the same corporation that they said has incarcerated their family, and that they said has tried—but failed—to incarcerate them.
Sasha W. told Rewire that for QTPOC, it’s easy to forget that the event is supposed to be about celebration.
“For many of us, we can’t really bring our whole selves into these places that are meant to make us feel free or we have to turn off parts of who we are in order to enjoy ourselves” the organizer said. “And as far as the policing of these events go, I think it’s worth noting that policing has always been about protecting property. It’s always been about property over people since the days of the slave trade. When we see police at Pride events the assumption [by our communities] is that those police will protect money and business over our queer brown and Black bodies.”
“Really Troubling Policies”
As organizations and corporations work to meet the short-term needs of victims of the Orlando shooting, advocates are thinking ahead to the policies that will adversely affect their communities, and strategizing to redefine safety and security for QTPOC.
Gutierrez told Rewire that what has made him feel safe in the days since the Orlando shooting is being around his QTPOCcommunity, listening to them, mourning with them, sharing space with them, and honoring the lives of the brothers and sisters that were lost. His community, the organizer said, is now more committed than ever to exist boldly and to make the world a safer place for people like them—and that means pushing back against what he believes to be a troubling narrative about what safety should look like.
However, Gutierrez said that politicians are using his community’s pain in the wake of the Orlando shooting to push an anti-Muslim agenda and pit the LGBTQ community against Muslims, conveniently forgetting that there are people who live at the intersection of being queer and Muslim. Perhaps more troubling are the policies that may arise as a result of the shooting, policies that will add to the surveilling and profiling Muslims already experience and that will further stigmatize and criminalize vulnerable communities.
“The government, the police, politicians, they’re trying to equate safety with having more police on the street, at gay clubs—that are like home to many of us, and at Pride. We know that doesn’t make us safe; we know police are part of the problem,” he said.
“Of course we need to make it more difficult for people to get guns, but we also need more resources for our communities so our communities can truly be safe on the streets, in the workplace, at school, at the clubs, and at Pride,” he said. “That means having healthy communities that have resources so people can thrive and live authentically. The answer to our problems is not more police.”
Sasha W. echoed Gutierrez, saying that their community is already fearful of what’s to come because moments of national crisis often create the space for “really troubling policies.”
“That’s how we got the Patriot Act,” the organizer said. “There is a fear that we are in another one of those moments where there are calls for protection and it’s being tied to the false idea of a foreign threat that requires an increase of surveillance of Muslims. Think of how calls for protection have also hurt queer communities, communities of color, trans communities, like the idea that bathrooms aren’t safe because of trans people. Who is really unsafe in this country, and why do policies hurt us instead of protect us?”
Lopez added: “The Orlando shooting was powered by the fact that the United States has a history of violence against LGBTQIA communities, a history of violence against immigrants, a history of violence against women, and a history of colonization of the island of Puerto Rico …The U.S. needs to address institutional problems of race, ethnicity, class, gender, sex, and sexuality if it wants to put an end to future massacres.”
Sasha W. urges QTPOC to “expand their political imagination” and re-envision what security looks like. In the long term, the organizer said, they hope more people recognize who their communities’ “actual enemies” are, instead of turning on each other.
“Let’s recognize that the state has always been something we’ve had to fight to survive and that institutions that hurt us are growing increasingly strong in this moment of crisis, as they often do, so we have to work to disarm and dismantle the institutions that terrorize our communities” they said.
“On another note, we have always been our own best defense, especially in communities of color,” they said. “Supporting each other to protect ourselves better doesn’t happen overnight, I know, but so much of this starts with building community with each other so that we know each other, love each other, and throw down for one another.”