Critical Perspectives on Gender Violence in the Eastern Congo

Sara Meger (left) and Charlotte Mertens at the IPCS

The long running conflict in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo has become known to international audiences for the high rate of sexual violence and rape committed as acts of war. At the penultimate AFSAAP-IPCS seminar in Melbourne on Thursday 10th of October, two papers contextualised this phenomenon and critically appraised the global response.

Sara Meger, a researcher on gender and international relations at the University of Melbourne, presented the first of these papers under the title “The Fetishisation of Sexual Violence in International Security Studies”. The premise of Meger’s argument was that International relations scholarship has erred in treating sexual violence in war as an isolated, if not aberrant, phenomenon. The dominant narrative treats it as an exceptional form of gender-based violence, and the sole form capable of destabilising international peace and security. Conversely, her paper questioned the current fixation in international security studies and in policy on this particular form of gender violence and offered a critique of narrow approaches to understanding wartime sexual violence that ignore the larger social structures in which this violence is taking place. She advocated a structural perspective and situates this form of violence against women within the broader framework of international political economy and argued that violence against women must be understood in relation to material inequalities between genders: that sexual violence in war must be positioned on the continuum of violence used in the maintenance and (re)construction of the global gender hierarchy. Running through the presentation was a trenchant critique current UN framework for responding to sexual violence in war, claiming that it systematically fails to address the gendered social, economic, and political inequalities undergirding gender-based violence.

The second paper, “Rape Claims in the Survival Economy of the Kivus, Democratic Republic of Congo”, was presented by Charlotte Mertens, a PhD candidate also at the University of Melbourne. In harmony with the preceding paper, Mertens’ presentation sought to situate rape claims in the eastern DRC in a survival economy connected to both local gender relations and the financial structures of NGO’s and government agencies created to aid victims of sexual violence. Based on her fieldwork, she showed that presenting oneself as a victim of rape in the Kivus is often the quickest way to gain access to health care, and NGOs invariably include sexual violence in their programmes as a means to solicit funding from donors. A key component of this critique sought to challenge the supposed (assumed) binary between civilian and military spheres that portrays people as passive objects of violence and recipients of aid. This shift enabled a broader approach to the discussion of sexual violence in DRC that included a consideration of the fluidity of the social system of the Kivus and how it might affect the design of intervention strategies and policies. Characterised by mediated statehood and a radical militarisation, the status quo enables every actor, civilians included, to instrumentalise his/her own disorder. For Mertens, it is within this survival economy of despair and opportunism in the Kivus that rape claims can be considered as an individual or collective strategy of people to make the most of the opportunities available.