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Speaking plainly about rape in Congo

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Beds crowd a bare room at a clinic in Congo where rape victims receive medical and psychological care. Photo by Liz Lucas/Oxfam America
Beds crowd a bare room at a clinic in Congo where rape survivors receive medical and psychological care. Photo by Liz Lucas/Oxfam America

I’ve been thinking about a string of words that appeared in the headline of an Oxfam press release on the Democratic Republic of Congo earlier this week: “Rape, forced labor, reprisal attacks, and torture.” They describe the surge in brutality civilians have endured from all sides since the start of the year when the Congolese government began a UN-backed military offensive against a rebel group in the conflict-torn eastern provinces of the country.

I’ve been to Congo. I’ve seen the conditions in those eastern provinces. I’ve heard many painful stories about the hardships and trauma people there live with daily. So why has that headline rattled me?

It’s the specificity of it, and its bluntness.

So often at Oxfam we couch the horrors of what we see in softer terms—like sexual assault or gender-based violence—phrases cloaked in a vagueness that distances us  and our readers from the reality of people’s lives. Sometimes, we use these terms because we have to—to protect the safety of staff members and partners working in dangerous places. They could suffer reprisals if we are too direct in our language. But as a writer—and a woman—it’s wildly frustrating not to be able to say “rape” when rape is the truest word for the misery women suffer.

The Congo headline startled me. Rape, it said. And torture. Forced labor. Reprisal attacks. So much human abuse—labeled for exactly what it is—crowded into a few inches of type. Was this an Oxfam headline?

Yes, it was. And I’m glad for its frankness, because it may make people pay attention.
 The news from Congo is appalling. If the headline grabs readers, they may linger long enough on the story to know that the price civilians are paying in this offensive is far too steep. And they may join Oxfam in calling on the region’s UN peacekeeping force—known as MONUC—to withhold its support of the operation if the Congolese government allows military abuses to continue.

As Marcel Stoessel, head of Oxfam in Congo said, “The Congolese people need an army that protects them, not preys on them.”

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