AIII #5: Representing Violence in the DRC – Time for a new Narrative

Representing Violence in the DRC: Time for a new Narrative

Charlotte Mertens


Writing on violence in the Congo is a compelling and perplexing task, particularly because our cognitive framework is inundated with colonial imagery of African primitivism and savagery. These images persist and fuel contemporary understandings of events in the DRC (see Dunn 2003). The global focus on Congo’s so-called rape crisis by the media, donors and aid industry has only reinforced such framings (see also Verweijen forthcoming 2015). Researchers like Baaz and Stern (2013) have powerfully illustrated how perpetrators of rape are generally portrayed as savages and animals and hence dehumanized. The use of animal metaphors to describe the native population has been very common since Congo’s colonial invention by Western powers at the end of the nineteenth century (Dunn 2003). But not only does the use of animal metaphors persist in contemporary frames, a discourse has developed that emphasizes sexual violence in the DRC as exceptional and thus incomparable to the rest of the world. Currently, the political frame through which sexual violence is articulated has made it “the major horrendous crime of our time”, “an exceptional form of brutality”[1] and “the monstrosity of our century”[2]. Epithets of the DRC as “the rape-capital of the world”[3] and “the cockpit of conflict-related sexual violence”[4] brand the country as an exceptional place in which exceptional violence occurs. Through images and stories of raped women and staggering rape statistics, the framing of Congo as the bleeding heart of Africa is enduring.

There is no doubt that the problem of sexual violence in eastern DRC is real. It has destroyed basic tissues of social life, it has damaged spousal bonds and child-parent relationships and has weakened the prevailing sense of community. My concern here is with the representation of the DRC as a pivotal example of the most brutal forms of violence. Is sexual violence not the latest frame in a long history of negative, colonial tropes on imagining the Congo? Does this colonial imagining not partly explain the international community’s fixation on sexual violence but at the same time its unwillingness to understand the violence beyond the well-known tropes of barbarity? Fassin in his work on perceptions and experiences of Aids in South-Africa calls this a form of “political anesthesia”. He argues that “we have read or heard that in South Africa AIDS is a problem of sexual behaviors and peculiar beliefs” and that “we do not feel we need to know any more than we already know” (Fassin 2007, xii). Similarly, we have read and heard about the use of brutal sexual violence as a weapon of war by armed groups in order to access natural resources in eastern DRC and we feel we know enough. It is this universal frame on rape that underwrites contemporary international discourse. It ignores the complexities of the conflict and the lived experiences of those affected by the violence.

Studies into how the conflict has affected the Congolese people have demonstrated that sexual violence occurs as part of a pattern of general abuse and other types of (non-sexual) violence. For example, one study demonstrates that 77 percent of Congolese have lost property during the conflict, 50 percent of men and 66 percent of women have had family members killed in the war (Slegh et al., 2012). In Vinck et al.’s study, 76 percent reported the looting of cattle, 66 percent the destruction or confiscation of their houses or land (54 percent) (2008: 32). These studies speak of the importance of poverty, erosion of social structures and traditional gender relations, the absence of state services and the uncertainty and fear that war brings, as crucial factors in creating conditions in which sexual violence recurs. In this sense violence, including sexual violence, in eastern DRC should be understood as the result of a reconfiguration of economic and political systems in which the emergence of new complexes of power, based on elite or Big Man networks, has led to transformations of social and gender relations and the fragmentation of the Congolese state into radically militarized fiefdoms. Unfortunately, context-specific nuance is rarely present in contemporary international discourse on DRC.

Not surprisingly, some Congolese political and civil society actors have expressed their dissent about their country’s predicament in relation to its representation. Recently Jeannine Mabunda, Special Adviser to President Kabila on Sexual Violence, stated that the DRC no longer accepts to be called the rape-capital of the world.[5] Similarly, Dr Mukwege in his speech upon receiving the prestigious Sakharov prize for his work in treating Congolese rape victims asserted: “It is time we show the world what we inherited from our ancestors: a soul of dignity, of solidarity and hospitality.”[6] Indeed, Congolese no longer accept the negative tropes that have been uncritically projected by external actors upon their identities, their country and their imaginations. It is time for a new narrative, a new lexicon in which Congolese voices are heard and in which sexual violence is understood as a symptom of the political crisis that paralyzes eastern DRC rather than an isolated phenomenon. Any writing on violence in the DRC should attempt “to write the world from Africa” or “to write Africa into the world” (Comaroff & Mbembe 2010: 656). Ultimately this means to go beyond narrating experiences of violence but to expose the invisible power relations behind these experiences. Hence, an informed ethnographic approach is imperative to understanding all violence. It is also crucial to finding ways to acknowledge and act on sexual violence without contributing to this stigmatisation of a nation and its people.


Charlotte Mertens is a doctoral candidate at the University of Melbourne. She researches the framing of sexual violence within the international discourse and its effects in the context of the armed conflict in eastern DRC. Additionally, she conducts archival research on violence in the Congo Free State (1885–1908).



Dunn, Kevin. 2003. Imagining the Congo. The International Relations of Identity. New York: Palgrave MacMillan.

Eriksson Baaz, Marie and Stern, Maria. 2013. Sexual Violence as a Weapon of War? Perceptions, Prescriptions, Problems in the Congo and Beyond. London and New York: Zed Books.

Fassin, Didier. 2007. When Bodies Remember. Experiences and Politics of AIDS in South Africa. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Shipley, Jesse Weaver, Comaroff, Jean and Mbembe, Achille. 2010. “Africa in Theory: A Conversation Between Jean Comaroff and Achille Mbembe.” Anthropological Quarterly, 83(3): 653–678.

Slegh, H., et al. 2014. Gender Relations, Sexual and Gender-Based Violence and the Effects of Conflict on Women and Men in North Kivu. Capetown, South Africa: Promundo-US and Sonke Gender Justice.

Verweijen, Judith. Forthcoming 2015. “Coping with the Barbarian Syndrome: The Challenges of Researching Civilian-military Interaction ‘from below’ in the Eastern DR Congo”. In Social Science Research Ethics for a Globalizing World: Interdisciplinary and Cross-Cultural Perspectives, edited by Keerty Nakray, Margaret Alston and Kerri Whittenbury. London: Routledge.

Vinck, Patrick, et al. 2008. Living with Fear. A Population-Based Survey on Attitudes about Peace, Justice, and Social Reconstruction in Eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo. Human Rights Center, University of California, Berkeley.



[1] Angelina Jolie during 2013 UN debate on UNSCR 2106 on Women, Peace and Security, June 24.

[2] See promotional video on

[3] Nicholas Kristof, New York Times, 2008, repeated by Margot Wallstrom in 2010.

[4] John Kelly, Permanent Mission of Ireland to the United Nations, June 24, 2013.



One Response to “AIII #5: Representing Violence in the DRC – Time for a new Narrative”
  1. Richard Zink says:


    Von meinem iPad gesendet


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