Amani Itakuya #23: Colonial Remembering, Injured Bodies, and Current Humanitarianism

Colonial Remembering, Injured Bodies, and Current Humanitarianism 

Charlotte Mertens


Congolese colonial subjects narrate vivid memories of the grotesque and spectacular violence inflicted upon them by European ‘sadists’ during Leopold’s reign of the Congo Free State: “Soldiers made young men kill or rape their own mother and sisters” (Hochschild 1988:166). Colonial rememberings of 1953 mention sentries “amusing themselves while pounding the insides of women’s vaginas with sticks” (Boelaert et al. in Hunt 2008:237). These colonial forms of sexual violence are similar to the sexual atrocities that have taken place in the current conflict in eastern DRC and which have been reported on by human rights watch dogs, media and campaigners. [1] However, today’s international humanitarianism occurs in the midst of an almost complete absence of such history and its memories.

When in the 1930s, the Belgian colonial regime taught Congolese girls and women home economics and maternal hygiene in their foyers sociaux, or domestic training institutions, the ultimate goal was to ‘strive for the liberation of the indigenous woman as a beast of burden in order to give her the time and the energy to devote herself to the traditional role of wife and mother as in the civilised countries’ (translated from Mianda 1995:54). The colonial politics of improving the status of this ‘pauvre créature/poor creature’ (Capt. Hennebert 1908, archives Africa Museum) was seen as a humanitarian cause. The ‘suffering bodies’ of colonial women were used to allow the colonial regime to produce itself as the protector/saviour of the native women. Obviously, much is new since the colonial times and current approaches have moved away from domesticating humanitarianism. Local NGOs, civil society actors and grassroots organisations now share the international political stage with imperial actors and others. Yet these ‘repetitions’ in history should not be forgotten.

Sexual violence and the ‘injured bodies’ [2] of Congolese women is the most recent frame through which the DRC is made knowable and through which the role of humanitarian organisations are made meaningful. A constant reiteration of the pain undergone by female rape victims marks the international discourse on sexual violence. Addressing sexual violence and tackling impunity are presented as central ingredients of peacebuilding in eastern DRC. Campaigns such as Stop Rape Now (UN Action) and Stop Rape in DRC (V-Day/Unicef) set up women as victims of the ‘dysfunctional’ culture of war. Through empowering women to claim their rights, they are encouraged to change this culture. [3] In this sense the ‘wounded’ Congolese rape victim serves as a ‘powerful metaphor’ for advancing certain western notions of gender empowerment that often clash with the desire of the rape victim/survivor (Doezema 2001). Indeed, interviews on the ground reveal that women survivors’ primary concerns to return to their community and to provide education, food and security for their children and other family members are far greater than the need to be acknowledged for the harm that has been done to them. [4]

Also, one has to remain alert about ‘redemptive projects’ (Hunt 2008) that might leave the female rape victim in a state of exile within her own homeland. During my fieldwork many respondents stress that sexual violence destroys entire families and communities, not only women. Still, most programmes provide relief to rape victims solely. One example is City of Joy, a centre next to Panzi Hospital supported by V-Day and Fondation Panzi that provides leadership training to women survivors of sexual violence. During the training, women and girls are taught notions of rights, psychotherapy, dance, self-defence, English and French, … [5] After graduation they emerge as ‘real agents of development, human and women’s rights activists’ and return to their respective communities to become leaders of change. [6] Undoubtedly, these programs are important and can be live-saving. However, one respondent makes clear that this approach reinforces stigmatisation:

“It [approach of taking away sexual violence victims to maisons d’ecoute] creates a rupture in the life of the female victim. When she returns to her community after six months, she struggles to adapt. It reinforces stigmatisation. She has been ‘privileged’ because she has been raped. When returning to her village, she often endures the aggression of the other villagers who have not been raped and have not benefitted from caresse internationale [international care] but who are nevertheless equally traumatised.” [7]

The attachment to the wound becomes the basis for her identity and in doing so, the rape victim risks marginalising and excluding herself from her family, community and often from her identity as a Congolese as well. The slogan of City of Joy ‘Transform Pain to Power’ is symbolic here. By turning pain into power, the injured body of the female rape victim serves the function of marking the contrast between herself and the ‘empowered woman’. Rather than offering aid to female survivors only, ‘effective SGBV programming and policy must provide services to husbands, children and other family members in addition to survivors of rape. Women cannot truly heal if their support networks are broken’ (Kelly 2011). Is it not time to reverse the invisibility that humanitarian organisations manufacture (Kogacioglu 2004) about their own role in sustaining renovated versions of colonial time and space and to focus on what does the victim/survivor really want?


Charlotte Mertens is a PhD candidate at the University of Melbourne. She researches the framing of sexual violence within the discourse of the United Nations and how this is translated on the ground in the context of the armed conflict in eastern DRC. Additionally, she conducts research into the local conflict dynamics that cause war-time rape.


References Cited

Brown, W. (1995). States of Injury. Power and Freedom in Late Modernity, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

Doezema, J. (2001). ‘Ouch!: Western Feminists’ ‘Wounded Attachment’ to the ‘Third World Prostitute’’, in Feminist Review 67 (Spring:2001), 16-38.

Hennebert, M. (1907). Conférence Annuaire 1907-1908 ‘La condition de la femme noire’, Club Africain Anvers, Cercle d’Etudes Coloniales, Tervuren, Archives Musée Royale de l’Afrique Centrale.

Hochschild, A. (1998). King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Hunt, N.R. (2008). An Acoustic Register, Tenacious Images and Congolese Scenes of Rape and Repetition, Cultural Antrhopology,

Kelly, J., VanRooyen et al. (2011). ‘Hope for the Future Again’: Tracing the effects of sexual violence and conflict on families and communities in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, Harvard Humanitarian Initiative.

Kogacioglu, D. (2004). The Tradition Effect: Framing Honor Crimes in Turkey. Differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies, 15(2), 118-151.

Mianda, G. (1995). Dans l’ombre de la ‘democratie’ au Zaire: La remise en question de l’emancipation Mobutiste de la femme. Canadian Journal of African Studies/Revue Canadienne des Etudes Africaines, 29(1), 51-78.

[2] The term of ‘injured bodies’ and ‘wounded attachments’ is drawn from Wendy Brown’s (1995) States of Injury, Power and Freedom in Late Modernity.

[4] Interview Mamas for Africa, Bukavu, 2012.

[5] A six-months course to ninety female survivors is offered twice a year.

[7] Interview Bukavu Sept 2012.

2 Responses to “Amani Itakuya #23: Colonial Remembering, Injured Bodies, and Current Humanitarianism”
  1. Sara Müller says:

    Thank you for this great article! Have you published your thesis or woud it be possible to acquire it? I’m a Student of Anthropology and currently writing a paper about “City of Joy” and therefore very interested in the topic :)

  2. Mirta Gladue says:

    I blog frequently and I gravely be grateful you for your information.

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