Male rape, too, as weapon of war

Congolese victims endure serious injury and the gravest insult of all: Being called "bush wives"

Published August 5, 2009 3:06PM (EDT)

Today's nearly unreadable must-read: The New York Times' cover story about male rape victims in the Congo. We already know -- as the Times reiterates -- that "the United Nations ... considers eastern Congo the rape capital of the world ... and that "[h]undreds of thousands of women have been sexually assaulted by the various warring militias haunting these hills, and right now this area is going through one of its bloodiest periods in years."

But now, according to reports by local aid organizations and human rights groups (such as Oxfam), "the number of men who have been raped has risen sharply in recent months." (Joint Congo-Rwanda military operations intended to defeat rebels along the border have instead provoked an "appalling" level of violence against civilians -- by rebels and Congolese soldiers alike.) The American Bar Association, which runs a sexual violence legal clinic in Goma -- an interesting story unto itself, no? --  said that more than 10 percent of its cases in June were men. One aid worker said, "Everywhere we go, people say men are getting raped, too." (There are reports of castrations as well, along with fatal rape-related injuries.)

Why male rape? The rape of women as a "cheaper-than-bullets"  "weapon of war" -- a means of taking power, breaking spirit, hacking families and communities apart (not to mention spreading disease) -- is a well-established phenomenon. But raping men, in a certain symbolic way, may constitute even more of a power play.

Victim-blaming knows no gender: Like their female counterparts, the male victims find themselves scorned or shunned by their communities. But -- tellingly, but not surprisingly -- most derisive of all: These men are called women.

Those few men who came forward -- one recovering in a hospital "rape ward" filled with hundreds of women -- to speak to the Times said they "instantly became castaways in their villages, lonely, ridiculed figures, derisively referred to as 'bush wives.'"

The Times doesn't go into this, but as a gendered insult, "bush wives" is even worse than it sounds. It's not just "little wifey," or some such. As described in the Christian Science Monitor, it refers to the widespread, entrenched practice of forcing women to become wives of African soldiers. (Given that the women are expected to stay with -- and serve -- the men for life, an international criminal tribunal now recognizes this as its own crime, separate from rape and sexual violence.)

So these men in Congo are seen as not just "women" or "wives"; they are "wives" who themselves are "weak" and victimized. Double-whammy, lowest-rung.

"The male rape cases are still just a fraction of those against women. But for the men involved, aid workers say, it is even harder to bounce back," notes the Times, quoting an aid worker: "'Men's identity is so connected to power and control.' And in a place where homosexuality is so taboo, the rapes carry an extra dose of shame."

When you put it that way -- and when you put yourself in the shoes of the perpetrators -- you wonder why, indeed, the ratio the ABA clinic reported isn't even higher.

 How to help all victims of rape and violence in the region? Donate to Oxfam,  HEAL Africa, or -- hello, judges, attorneys, law professors and legal specialists -- become one of the ABA's International Pro Bono Legal Specialists.

By Lynn Harris

Award-winning journalist Lynn Harris is author of the comic novel "Death by Chick Lit" and co-creator of She also writes for the New York Times, Glamour, and many others.

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