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International aid and the business of rape in Congo

An NPR report today (28 Aug 2017) did an outstanding job of describing a heart-rending situation. My thoughts here spring from that report.

In Congo—as likely in too many other places—rape has been an ongoing problem. Among other obvious problems for the women is the fact that a victim of rape is shunned by her husband and family. Thousands of women face such a predicament.

Raped women in Congo

Raped Congolese women attract international aid money, and become pawns. They are fighting back with music.

Overlain on this situation is international aid, which is afforded to those victims. The international aid workers, one of whom offered NPR surprisingly frank comments, have come to systematize the process, a necessary evil in the face of the distribution of such aid locally to the point of a monetary transaction between the organization and the individual.

I will paraphrase the man who was interviewed: “We would take these requests by the hundreds. There was a French phrase for it, which translated to ‘business as usual,'” he said happily. But when asked if, during that time, he thought he was helping his country, he supplied a pragmatic affirmation. “It was good for the people.”

So here is a system, imposed on a suffering country by international aid groups with the best of intentions, that as a practical matter rewards women for lying. And women lied. They may or may not have been raped; the report did not break it down in detail. In fact, what was happening—amid a horribly common situation of the rape of Congolese women by military personnel and those in authority—was some immeasurable population of women whose experiences may have included one or more rapes, or no rapes, and whose experience may have come more closely to resemble prostitution than rape.

Many of the women, ostracized by their families, sought succor and therapy from an organization that was the primary object of NPR’s report. Within this organization, women were told that they could not lie for money—that no money would be given to them for their stories. A musician was often on hand during these sessions so that the proceedings would represent almost a church-like atmosphere for the women. For the first time, they were asked to reveal their secret truths, to confess, in a way. Some of them acknowledged that “it was weird telling the truth, not being told to tell lies.”

What resulted was music. Music with lyrics written by the women. And that music has made it to the airwaves in Congo. Today, the husbands and families can listen on the radio to their women—to the way they have been shunned, to the stark accusations for the husbands who have deserted their wives, to the anger these women feel toward their families, who urged the lies and ostracized the women regardless, to the loneliness the women feel to the depths of their souls.

Nothing like a little music to lighten the mood. You can hear it today, in Congo, on the air. And you can wonder at the intricacies and unintended, perhaps unavoidable, consequences of international aid. Was enough thought devoted to the culture in which the aid was dispensed? Will this situation continue?

Stay tuned.


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