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Sensationalism or silence in the Congo: rape, death and the media

En route to Panzi Hospital in South Kivu, DRC. According to journalist André Thiel, this Congolese woman was kidnapped and raped for six years by Hutu rebels. Despite family support, she and her daughter have been rejected by villagers. Photo: Flickr/andré thiel.Rape and conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) are in the news. Like the daily global toll of avoidable death and illness, wars which do not obviously involve Americans, Europeans or Israelis usually struggle to be noticed.  However, the recent DRC media coverage has not been universally welcomed.

However one looks at it, media coverage of the Democratic Republic of Congo has not been good. 

In the global media covered by the Alertnet world press tracker, between September 2006 (when the press data begins) and April 2007, there were 1,327 stories on the DRC, whereas the Israel-Palestinian, Afghanistan and Iraq conflicts generated 19,946, 29,987 and 43,589 stories respectively.

Yet, a study by the New York-based International Rescue Committee (IRC) across the DR Congo between January 2006 and April 2007 estimated that 45,000 extra people were dying each month from preventable diseases and starvation as a legacy of conflict. That death rate predated 2006, according to the IRC, and showed no sign of abating when the survey ended.

Many other ongoing chronic health and mortality crises similarly receive little coverage, partly because they lack the drama of a sudden emergency. The scale of such crises can be immense: tobacco will be responsible for hundreds of millions deaths this century (the WHO estimates 1 billion), while the DRC excess death rate may equate to 5.4 million lives per decade.

The conflict in the DRC has been called the Rape of a Nation by documentary maker Marcus Bleasdale, who linked it to the exploitation of the country's mineral resources.

A number of organisations have tried to highlight literal rape in the DRC but have struggled to get attention. An extraordinary documentary, which included interviews with soldiers that admitted to multiple assaults against women, was titled by its director, Lisa F. Jackson, "The Greatest Silence: Rape in the Congo".

This month, the DRC received more coverage than usual following the publication, in the American Journal of Public Health (AJPH), of new research on rape in the Central African country.

However, criticisms quickly followed of both the research and how it has been covered. Economist Prof. William Easterly and Laura Freschi, implied on their New York University aidwatch blog that the data, methods and results were all shaky.

Scepticism is not entirely unreasonable. With any conflict or emergency, there is a temptation for advocacy groups and development organisations to exaggerate their scale in order to obtain media coverage, pressure politicians or raise funds. There is also the possibility that academics will overstate their results and media coverage will dramatise things further while removing all caveats. What is more, all research is a work in progress, rather than the last word.

Several key statistics relating to the DRC have been questioned.

Uncertain data

On the basis of the latest of five studies, the New York-based International Rescue Committee (IRC) has claimed that 5.4 million extra deaths occurred in the DRC between 1998 and 2007 (45,000 per month over 10 years).

The figure has been widely disseminated but the IRC report acknowledged that there was uncertainty over pre-war mortality and that a different assumption would produce a different estimate of excess deaths from conflict. It used the (more conservative) sub-Saharan average of 1.4 deaths per 1000 population per month for the east and 1.8 for the west, rather than the UNICEF 1996 estimate of 1.2 for the country.

Andrew Mack, director of the Human Security Report Project at Canada's Simon Fraser University has criticised the findings and argued that the mortality rate in the absence of conflict would have been higher.

In a study prepared for the World Bank World Development Report 2011, independent consultant, Tony Gambino states that the IRC data and extrapolations are sound but also argues that a higher baseline mortality rate (2.0/1000/mo) is more likely to be accurate. This would give a figure of 3.3 million excess deaths from conflict. But he points out that the higher baseline implies the overall situation in terms of human well-being is worse, not better, and "should lead to greater concern over the situation in the Congo, not less, since their estimates end in 2007, while Congo‘s ongoing crises in poor governance and adequate health care delivery continue into 2011."

Moreover, if one accepts the IRC data as Gambino does, then, relative to the (already high) sub-Saharan average (1.4/1000/mo), over 5.4 million extra deaths from conflict and other causes still occurred in the DRC in the 10 years to 2007 and more since.

The prewar estimate is crucial (only) in determining what proportion of the deaths was caused by conflict. For whatever reason we tend to be more appalled when the international community fails to intervene in a conflict than when it fails to intervene against poverty.

The population of the DRC is another unknown. The current estimate quoted by the CIA is about 72 million but the last census was in 1984. If the population is much smaller than thought, then the estimates for total mortality and rape need to be adjusted downwards.

What about rape statistics? It's hard to get accurate figures in any country, let alone the DRC. However, researchers can only use the data they have: a significant Demographic and Health Survey (DHS) was conducted in 2007 (full report in French), which provided the data for the AJPH research.

The DHS study found that domestic violence is very high: 31% of women who had ever been married or lived with a partner reported forced intercourse from partners or spouses in their lifetimes. However, the figure for all women suffering forced intercourse of any type during their lifetime was given as 16%. In the prior 12 months the figure given was 4%, though it was higher (6%) in conflict zones.

The AJPH authors conducted additional analysis and, according to the New York Times, estimated 12% of women experienced rape in their lifetime and 3% in the past year. With a pop. est. of 70m, the research gives rape figures in absolute numbers: 407-430,000 rapes of women aged 15-49 in 12 months, or 48 per hour, or 4 every five minutes. It also highlighted vast differences between rape rates in different regions of the DRC.

Comparison of DRC rape rates with rape in the United States

The highest reported rate of rape in the prior 12 months occurred in Nord-Kivu with 67 rapes per 1,000 women aged 15 to 49. This is a huge multiple of the 2007 U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) estimates of 0.5 rapes per 1000 women p.a. in the United States.

However, the lifetime rates in the DHS and AJPH reports are lower than reported US rates of about 18% in two other studies: a 1998 DOJ study and a 2007 DOJ-funded study. The studies found that rapes and attempted rapes in the previous 12 months were 0.3% and 0.94% (9.4 per 1000), respectively. The latter is almost 20 times higher than the other DOJ estimate of 0.5/1000, although still three times lower than that of the AJPH research, and seven times lower than reported in Nord-Kivu. 

Another confounding factor is that rapes are not evenly distributed throughout a woman's life. It has been stated that 80% of victims are under 30. Given a younger population in the DRC than the United States, a survey of women in the DRC is likely to contain a much larger proportion of women under 30, and therefore a much higher twelve-month rape rate, all else being equal. The 2007 DOJ-funded study estimated that US students experienced much higher rape rates: 51.5 per 1000 in the prior 12 months, which is higher than the DRC average in the DHS study. On the other hand, had the DHS survey included girls under 15, the total number of recorded rapes would have been higher.

Questioning the conclusions

The principal claim of both the latest and the IRC reports is that conflict has resulted in huge numbers of additional rapes and deaths, respectively. Evidence is provided by the distribution of mortality figures and reported rape within the DRC. The high reported annual rape rate in the DRC relative to the lifetime rate (which is similar to that of the US) suggests that rape rates escalated in recent years. The confessions of soldiers provide further evidence of rape and of changes in attitudes due to conflict, even if the majority of reported assaults were domestic.

Further evidence is provided from a Oxfam/Harvard Humanitarian initiative study which found a 17-fold increase in rapes carried out by civilians between 2004 and 2008 and an extraordinary 60% of victims being gang-raped. However, that study was conducted at a single hospital in South Kivu, Panzi Hospital, which offers free, comprehensive psychological and physical care for women victims. Some increase over time in the numbers of victims reporting to the hospital might be expected as news spread of its services.

Congolese gynaecologist and founder of the hospital, Dr. Denis Mukwege has just been awarded the 2010/11 Baudouin International Development Prize. In the past 10 years, Dr. Mukwege and his team have treated more than 30,000 victims of sexual violence.

But not everyone is convinced. Dr Maria Eriksson Baaz at the University of Gothenburg that DRC data is unreliable and women sometimes claim to be victims to get free health care. She has also questioned the links that some (such as Lisa Shannon, founder of the human rights advocacy group A Thousand Sisters) believe the study shows between the conflict in the east and rape throughout the country. However, the authors of the paper did not claim any link. 

Eriksson Baaz has issued a critical press release with her colleague at the University of Gothenburg, Maria Stern, associate professor at the School of Global Studies. They say: "While the global attention on sexual violence is important and necessary, we need to realize that this attention also reflects our fascination for the exotic and spectacular, and fits well into our preconceived images of Africa and the Congo... Problematically, researchers working with sexual violence receive both funding and attention while researchers working with less fashionable issues such as child and maternal mortality face a very different situation."

The AJPH conclusions have also been questioned by Beatrix Attinger Colijn, the head of the UN team tackling sexual violence in the country, who said that five-year old data was not relevant to the present situation. She expressed concern that donors are focusing on rape rather than the wider problems of insecurity and violence. "This seems a limited type of study; we try to get away from numbers and give a more analytical context of why sexual violence happens," she said.

Authors defend their findings while others welcome the research

Despite the misgivings of Colijn, and though the AJPH estimates are 'orders of magnitude higher' than previous estimates of sexual violence by the UNFPA, Margot Wallstrom, the United Nations special envoy on sexual violence in conflict, praised the AJPH study as filling gaps in the rape culture in the DRC.

The director of the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative, Michael VanRooyen, while expressing reservations about the sampling methods, said that the study reinforced the message that, in DR Congo, a war against women is taking place.

The authors have also defended their findings and attempted to address some of the criticisms.

Co-author of the AJPH study, Tia Palermo said rape "shouldn’t be the only thing we care about in the DRC – it should be one of the things, and long-term efforts to stop sexual violence must address these underlying inequalities."

Palermo told World and Media that "the authors never disagreed that women may claim to be rape victims to access basic services ...they simply stated that there is anecdotal evidence for this but worldwide more evidence supports that women underreport, not over-report sexual violence."

Lead author, Dr Amber Peterman, posted a comment in response to a critical blog post by journalist, Jina Moore: "Criticizing reporters, journalists, the public, the research or all of the above? Bravo - we (Amber, Tia, Caryn, those who will not be named!) love your blog posting!"

What do we really know?

The world of Donald Rumsfeld's (un/)known (un/)knowns seems simple by comparison. But we can be fairly confident of the following:

  • Millions have died in the DR Congo due to conflict or poverty since 1998.
  • Conflict is responsible for a significant portion of those deaths.
  • Rape is an appalling crime and a common weapon of war. Every war results in war crimes to a greater or lesser extent.
  • Countless war crimes, including rape, were committed in the DRC.
  • Globally, rape rates are very high.
  • In the DRC, annual rape rates are particularly high and, in the north and east, are probably among the highest worldwide.
  • High level of domestic rape everywhere suggests that there is a global problem with the attitudes of significant numbers of young men to sexual assault.
  • Huge numbers of deaths from preventable disease and malnutrition do not easily translate into headlines.
  • The same is true of rape but slightly less so


Silence or sensationalism

The manner in which the AJPH study was released to the press was criticised for sensationalism by Moore. Aidwatch did not blame the media but rather social science in general when published in medical journals (though not all economists would share their faith, by comparison, in the robustness of economic papers or how they are reviewed). Others have criticised the response by the media and the public, few more scathingly than journalist Prof. Howard French of Columbia University (see video below - it is one of a number of insightful crisisinthecongo videos).

French observes that millions of deaths failed to get the same attention as the rape story. He argues that the public believes "that Africa should provide an escalating sense of horror in order to get us interested in it" and concludes that "there is something wrong with us in the way that we think about Africa".

Nevertheless, reports of extensive rape in the country are hardly new but have yet to garner significant coverage. According to the Google news archive, the numbers of stories from international news outlets mentioning "congo" and "rape" has been growing slowly since 2003.

In the past 10 years, including the recent coverage, the total number of such stories (5,780) is marginally greater than the number of stories mentioning "congo" and "deaths" (5,050) but is still less than the number of stories (6,530) featuring "suicide" and "bomber"in the last two months alone.

There may also be other explanations as to why the DRC has been ignored and what exactly is wrong with us. One reason is that people find it hard to relate to or get their heads round statistics. Statistics on child deaths, abductions or road accidents in our own countries don't affect us in the same way as a single story with a photograph might - even taking place in a foreign country. Rape is not just appalling, it is also self- explanatory in a way that a tsunami is but that indirect death due to conflict or poverty is not.

Simplicity helps but it is not just the story but also the numbers that struggle for attention - the figures should be easy to grasp as they were in this case: the AJPH researchers said there were 4 rapes every 5 minutes.

We have a bias towards familiar story templates: such as David versus Goliath, evil corporations or imperialists, white racists, savage foreigners/Africans, US or Israeli aggression, fanatics that are Muslim/right-wing/left-wing, etc.

Aid dominates discussion and responses to global poverty partly because insufficient aid is familiar and easily understood, unlike more complex causes of poverty or conflict.

Is sensationalism (whether accurate or not) the alternative to "The Greatest Silence"? Or can the media to bring the global public interest and the interests of their publics closer together? It is a challenge but not an impossible one.

What now?

Susannah Sirkin, deputy director of Physicians for Human Rights, believes that high-quality data drove the campaign to ban landmines. She says that there is a much more challenging data collection and presentation job needed to "drive a new campaign to end sexual violence against women and girls, and also, an even more taboo crime, against men and boys." (Related: a new study suggets that, in the UK, rates of physical violence by women on male intimate partners may be comparable to those by males on female intimate partners.)

And the story of rape in the Congo? A new VOA Website is designed to let rape victims tell their own stories.


The goal of is to highlight and provide leads for important news stories that are not being adequately covered. A challenge for journalists and editors, humantiarian organisations and academics is to turn such neglected stories into news stories.

More commentary/news (external)

Do We Have the Congo Rape Crisis All Wrong? The Atlantic

Academic spat erupts over rape in Democratic Republic of the Congo Toronto Star


Rape of a Nation by Marcus Bleasdale - MediaStorm

The Greatest Silence: Rape in the Congo by Lisa F. Jackson (Official Trailer)


Howard French - Congo: Rape, Savagery, and Stereotypes, the Heart of Darkness

More videos: crisisinthecongo/YouTube

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