-How’s Butembo? The nurse-prisoner asks in the dark room and I smile at him. We’re in Zaire now, you know.
-Yes, I know. Butembo is good. The elections went pretty smoothly, now we’re just waiting for the results.
-We’ve been listening to the on-going count, says the Kapita in a scratchy voice.
Thankfully, the Kapita is either hungover or just not in the mood to drink today. He’s sober, rational, even helpful, and doesn’t breach my personal space bubble or make completely unfounded declarations of love.
-Tshisikedi is getting a lot of the vote, he continues. The radio is saying that he may have 54% of the vote.
It’s interesting the prisoners are following the elections even though they couldn’t participate. But no information on the elections is trustworthy. Even the information periodically released by CENI, the organization that executed and controls the vote, isn’t to be fully trusted. After Maman Marie finished counting the votes as a volunteer, there were more unused ballots leftover than ballots that had been cast. Her group requested to destroy the unused ballots in order to prevent fraud, but CENI refused. “It’s like we didn’t even vote,” Maman Marie remarked in the COPERMA office. “There’s so much fraud.” Her disappointment, alongside the sullen faces of the rest of the team surprised me. I thought they realized that would happen from the very beginning. I guess they were holding on to hope that evaporated in the face of those to-be-determined ballots. “Those will all be filled out for Kabila,” Maman Marie said sadly.
-We brought more oral rehydration salts, I say to the Kapita changing the subject.
-Thank, says the prison nurse a tall skinny man with a soft face and softer voice.
The Nurse clasps his hands together and bows a little in gratitude.
-We had run out, he says. The cholera is very bad right now.
The round faced prisoner who is apparently a priest walks into the room and sits across from me next to the nurse. The Kapita gets up from his bed and walks out of the room to help set up the television for another movie Urbain, Hangie and I brought. Urbain and Hangie have disappeared, leaving me alone in the room with the prison secretary, priest, nurse, and a younger man I don’t know.
-I was told you’re a priest, I say to the man with the rosary around his neck.
-I’m the Catholic representative in the prison, he says.
His voice isn’t scratchy or deflated like most of the prisoners. I’ve realized the strength of their voices depends on the number of vices they engage in. The Kapita drinks, smokes, and does a lot of yelling so his voice sounds as if it drains all of his energy just to get out a simple sentence. It’s like he’s trying to blow up a balloon with every word.
-May I ask why you’re in here? I ask.
-For the case of rape, he says as if I’ve just asked what gender he is.
-Always rape, adds the nurse who is also accused of rape.
-I worked as a police officer, he says. I judged people who were accused of a crime but it was rejected. After they were free they sent people to threaten me. Then they accused me of rape.
The other side of impunity, if he’s telling the truth. Urbain appears in the doorway and motions for me to join him in the prison courtyard. While I sat in the Kapita’s cell, the prisoners set up various benches and buckets in front of the television screen and are once again starting to fill the seats. The film for the day is The Greatest Silence: Rape in the Congo, a film by Lisa F. Jackson which won a Sundance Film Festival award in 2008. It’s the first time we’re truly breaching the subject of sexual violence. I walk through the prisoners, sending them to the Secretary as each one begs me for cigarettes. I tried handing them out myself but it created a chaotic avalanche of eager, outstretched arms. As always, the prisoners direct me to an empty bench directly in front of the television, reserved for Hangie, Urbain, and me. Little Lauren, the three year old girl imprisoned with her mother breaks through the crowd of prisoners and starts laughing when she sees me. She hops up to me and plants herself on my lap. She doesn’t seem afraid of anyone.
The Greatest Silence shows women in Bukavu who have been raped by rebels, governmental soldiers, and civilians. Jackson then travels into a rural area where she speaks with governmental soldiers and former Mayi-Mayi who admit to having raped women. There are subtitles in Swahili, but Urbain stands next to the television and explains what’s going on, for those who are illiterate or too far from the screen to read the translations. As the film continues, more and more of the prisoners start paying attention until about 90% of the yard is filled with men staring intently at the screen. A Bukavu police officer takes Jackson to meet a four year old girl who was raped.
-What? Exclaims a boy who looks about 16 years old. They raped a kid that young? How could I rape someone like this?
He motions to Lauren, who’s still sitting on my lap. Even though he’s expressing anger, I wrap my arms more tightly around the little girl and shift her farther away from him. The boy has headphones in his ears and bobs his head to an private beat, but he’s clearly paying attention.
-Raping a little girl like that is not okay. But raping an adult is okay, he says.
My eyebrows shoot up to my hairline as I watch him, but I don’t say anything. I want to get their honest reactions, I didn’t come to start a prison wide argument. The images on the screen move to the soldiers, who hold up their fingers to represent the number of women they’ve raped.
-This soldier is saying he raped seven women in a day, Urbain mistranslates.
The soldier is showing the total number of women he’s raped, not the number he raped in a day. But before I get a chance to correct Urbain, a tall, pimply young man to my right speaks out.
-I could rape 12 women in a day, he exclaims proudly.
Some of the other prisoners laugh. I stare at the awkward young man, sending him as much hatred and disgust as possible. I notice his eyes flick towards my direction to see if I’m impressed and he shifts his body around when he’s met by a gaze that’s clearly spitting on him. Despite my instinct to make him feel like ignorant filth, I try to relax my eyes. This is the wrong approach and I know it.
Research psychology studies show that one of the primary mechanisms behind sexual violence is masculine insecurity. Rape isn’t simply about power or anger; it’s also a manifestation of insecurity and a lack of confidence. In communities where boys are raised to adhere to strict and often unrealistic gender identity roles, the inability to measure up to “being a man” in the eyes of society is considered a primary mechanism behind rape. A “masculinity threat,” something that makes an individual feel as if he’s not manly enough in his social setting or personal gender identity role, can motivate an individual to attempt to regain a perceived level of masculinity through sexual violence. Levels of rape in the United States perpetrated by men in aggressive, typically masculine sports and college fraternities, for example, are thought to be particularly high due to the rigidity of the masculine identity role and the pressure to measure up to it.
Thus, making a man feel worse about himself can push him farther away from a secure and unthreatened mentality. I guess, in a way, this is my entire reason for being in the prison. Even I have to fight the urge to step on him, ostracize him, grind his frightening mindset into the ground. It’s what societies typically do across the world, and while holding someone responsible for a crime is vital in any society, with sexual violence it’s counterproductive if the goal is to decrease, prevent, maybe one day stop perpetration of rape. I’m not saying pity a man sick enough to force someone into sex, but if we only see hatred and anger, we’ll never find ways to fix the problem. The problem isn’t post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic fistula, or any of the many negative effects rape can have on an individual. The problem is the act of rape itself. “Rape is a man’s problem but it has become a woman’s issue,” said one of my rape crisis counseling and advocacy trainers in Chicago, IL.
When the film finishes, I stand up and address the entire crowd.
-I’d be interested in speaking with some of you individually about this film, I say and Urbain translates into Swahili. For example, this man said he’d rape 12 women not just seven.
I motion towards the pimply young man and still have to work to keep extreme disdain out of my voice.
-I want to know if you think that is okay. Rape can destroy the spirit of a person. It breaks down the strength of humanity and is currently breaking down the strength of this country.
Everyone stares at me and listens. A few men, mostly older ones, nod their heads in agreement. I feel like I’m standing in front of a wall that needs to be moved, but I know just pushing on it won’t work. My body is aching to reach out and shove it with all my might; just move it, but I know it’s not that simple.
The next day Hangie, Urbain, and I return. The Kapita gives us permission to discuss the film with a few of the prisoners and even allows us to sit in the small prison dispensary for privacy. We don’t have full privacy, however, as the Kapita himself stands in with us, along with the soft-spoken nurse and The Vesuvian. The Vesuvian is a tall, terrifying, and sickly looking prisoner. Every time I see him I have to resist the urge to move away from him, but he has done nothing threatening towards me or the COPERMA team thus far. Now, I see that he’s one of the Kapita’s acting officers. Honestly, if I were a prison chief I’d want The Vesuvian on my team as well.
Before we start talking about the film, I ask the Kapita if I can speak with Alphonse and Thomas, the yoda-like men who look like they’ve been living for centuries. The two elderly men are quickly located and they both hobble shakily into the dispensary and sit next to Urbain on the only cot in the room.
-Were you given a bed? I ask.
-Yes, they are now provided food and they each have a bed, Urbain translates as Alphones rattles off a slur of words in Kinande.
Neither of the men are wearing sandals still, but Urbain says it’s because even though they’re no longer “slaves” in the prison, they have to be able to purchase shoes. The prison doesn’t just hand them out.
-Can they explain more about the conflict of land? I ask.
I have a friend working in Human Rights for the United Nations in Butembo. Part of her job is investigating potential cases of unlawful imprisonment. A conflict of land could easily mean that someone wanted Alphonse and Thomas’ land and simply accused them of stealing the land, even if it truly belonged to the old men. It’s easy to use the judicial system as a weapon in a country like Congo. Again Alphonse picks up the dialogue and speaks rapidly for several minutes.
-Their older brother passed away recently, explains Urbain when Alphonse finishes. They didn’t have the means to buy a coffin or transport the body in a car so they carried the body on their heads to the place where they would bury it. They are true chiefs in their village and the land belonged to them. When they reached the place for the burial, a younger man was there and he said, you can’t bury him here this is my land. The police commander came and took the body and threw it to the ground. They’re the true chiefs but this other person wanted to become the chief. He’s the one who had them arrested.
-So the new guy stole their land? I ask, planning on bringing this report to my friend so she can look into it further.
-Here among the Nande people, Urbain explains, if you plant a tree on a piece of land it is a symbol that you own the land. When the police captain came, he asked the old men, ‘was it you who planted these trees?’ They said no it wasn’t us, because the other man planted it on their land. They saw that the man was trying to make them look like chiefs who are weak so they took vengeance to take back their rights and burned down the houses in the village.
-What? I exclaim looking at the frail old men. These two burned down houses?
-Yes, they burned three houses.
I can’t stop myself from laughing. The men are completely shocked that they are in prison, and although village chiefs often follow different rules there’s definitely a known limit to their power. Even though I’m laughing, Alphonse and Thomas are both looking at me with big, innocent smiles. I clearly need to pay more attention to my personal bias and stereotyping. I just assumed such frail little men had to be falsely imprisoned.
-They’re not in here over a land conflict, I say still laughing. They’re here for burning down people’s homes!
Urbain catches my laughter and nods his head in disbelief. I don’t think I was the only one who made the false assumption. I thank the two little men and they both hobble back out into the main prison area.
-Can we talk to the boy who was sitting next to you, Hangie? The one with the scraggly beard who was making comments when the four year old girl was on the screen?
Hangie describes the boy to the nurse, who immediately bows out of the dispensary and returns with the boy. Since both the Kapita and The Vesuvian are standing in the room, I can see fear immediately fill the boy’s face. He glances nervously between the muzungu and the two prison authorities, clearly thinking he’s in trouble.
-I was wondering if you’d be interested in talking to me about the film, I say motioning for the boy to sit down on the cot.
The boy glances nervously at the Kapita again, but when the Kapita shrugs the boy is convinced and plops down next to Urbain.
-First of all, what are you in here for? I ask.
-Ammunition of war, the boy responds in French.
-What exactly does that mean?
The boy’s French is clearly limited so he switches into Kinande and Swahili.
-He was police, translates Urbain. He was drunk and he shot bullets in the air and while he was drunk he lost ammunition like grenades.
-How old are you? I ask, thinking he can’t be older than 20.
The boy looks up at the ceiling for a few minutes in thought.
-I was born in 1986, he says finally.
-Okay, so you’re most likely 25, I say mostly to myself. What did you think about the film from yesterday?
-The film was educational, he responds. The cases are different. Rape of a four year old, that’s true rape. But other rapes, of a woman with 19 or more years are not really rape.
-What do you think the word rape means? I ask.
-It’s when you use force to have sex with a woman, he says and looks around at everyone as if to verify that I’ve asked him a very dumb question.
-But using force with someone who is older than 19 years old is not rape? I ask. If a man goes to a woman and asks to sleep with her and she says no, she refuses, and he forces her. If she is 49 years old, for example, do you consider that to be real rape?
The boy falters for a moment.
-We men, he says forcefully, many are here for cases of rape. But a woman of 30 years who sleeps with a boy of 16, that’s rape why don’t they bring the woman to prison?
-That’s true, I say nodding my head. I agree that a woman who sleeps with a minor should also be arrested as a man would. But when talking about males forcing females, if a soldier for example, has a gun and forces a woman who is 35 years old to have sex with him, is that rape? What do you think of that?
-It’s normal because if she refuses he’ll kill her, he says starting to look slightly unsure of himself.
I don’t understand his response, which means he probably didn’t understand my question.
-In your opinion is that acceptable? I ask.
-If it’s the wife of the house, he responds, one can support it. If the wife says no and the husband wants her, one can support him taking his wife by force.
-Do you think there are negative effects for a woman after she is raped?
-There’s diminishment, confusion, he says haltingly. The man can get an illness because of it if she’s sick.
I can see the boy’s face light up as if I’m a teacher looking for a right answer and he’s finally stumbled across it. He starts proudly listing off sexually transmitted infections from the film we showed previously.
-But does the woman experience negative effects that aren’t physical even, after a rape? I try again.
The boy is clearly confused by the question and fumbles around.
-If it’s a prostitute and you give her money and then she says no, she needs to give the money back.
He says this with a tinge of bitterness in his voice.
-Yes, I agree, I sigh. That’s a business deal that’s a very different thing. What do you think would make a man force a woman, not in terms of paying her for sex but forcing her when she refuses?
-There are two things, he responds. The person has two objectives. First is to destroy and second he knows he’s alone and he’s going to do what he wants.
More confusion. I try to flesh out the question more clearly.
-The first thing, the boy says when it seems he’s understood what I’m asking. Is to put something in the heart and brain. If the woman is in a man’s head and when he thinks of her he thinks, she’s beautiful, that’s what can push a man to rape. Students will leave with a woman on the motorcycle and go into the bush with the intention of sleeping with her. He has it already in his head but she doesn’t know. But also, if someone makes a woman pregnant in the neighborhood and he’s a minor and can’t marry her, she’ll say she was raped even when she wasn’t and he will be brought to the prison.
-Yes, I know that’s a big problem as well, I say.
The boy doesn’t seem uncomfortable by the subject or intimidated by myself or the Kapita who moves in and out of the dispensary, so it seems he simply hasn’t thought much about the topic. I ask if we can speak to the pimply boy who bragged about being able to rape 12 women in one day, but he’s already passed out in a drunken stupor. The nurse finds someone else who was interested in the film and interested in talking to me.
Musa is 17 and seems equally as confident as the first boy. Musa says he’s a mototaxi driver. One day he drove a girl home and when she got home her family discovered that she was pregnant. He didn’t make her pregnant, he never slept with her, she simply needed someone to blame the pregnancy on and she said it was Musa the taxi driver. When the police came with the girl, she couldn’t even pick out his face. They didn’t trap him raping but the accusation is rape, because of her parents. He doesn’t know her but he must have driven her and mentioned his name.
-Did you agree to sleep with her? Urbain asks.
-You can’t accept a woman you don’t even know, he responds angrily.
-Okay, I say wanting to move the conversation away from his culpability or lack of. What did you think about the film you watched yesterday?
-There’s a difference from the rapes here and that of the film, he says as he calms down. The film was of the adults raping. To take someone by force, but today in Butembo, if you don’t pay the woman she’ll say you raped her because you didn’t pay her money.
I nod in agreement. Even Slender, the tall female prisoner I spoke with previously, said outright that if a man didn’t pay her she would go to the police and accuse him of raping her.
-Do you think there are effects for the woman after a rape? I ask.
Musa turns effects around just as the first boy did, and says that a man can get an STI. I’m glad at least the information about STIs stuck with them and maybe self-preservation will at least make a man think twice before perpetrationg rape. But neither of them realizes how devastating rape can be for someone who survives it. The way they tell it, it’s like the woman doesn’t even exist.
-What about for the woman? I press. Do you think there can be non-physical problems?
He doesn’t even need to reflect and jumps immediately into a response in Kinande. I wait patiently for him to finish and am excited when Urbain begins to translate the impassioned response.
-He says that if you sleep with a woman and you tell her you’ll pay her, but then you don’t pay her she’ll take your clothes and won’t let you leave the place until you pay her. And she’ll put your clothes in water so you have to go home naked.
I drop my pen in exasperation but can’t help but chuckle.
-Did that happen to him?
-That’s an excellent strategy, I say with genuine respect for the woman who did it. If you tell a woman you’re going to pay her for sex you should pay her! I say. It’s a business deal.
-But if you have no money, Hangie starts to says but stops when I shoot him a death glare.
-If you have no money then don’t tell her you’re going to pay her in the first place. Find a willing girlfriend or wait until you can afford to buy it. What do you think can cause a man to force a woman to have sex, I say turning back to Musa. I don’t mean paying for sex I mean rape.
-Getting drunk, Musa responds. That can make someone able to rape. If you have a preference for someone, you think about them a lot. The way she dresses.
The last remark catches me off guard. It’s one of the most common arguments in the United States, and in my opinion, so painfully ignorant it makes me ashamed to be human. A woman should be able to walk around naked and men should still show decency and self-control. When men use the “the way she dresses” argument, I find it almost funny because of how transparently they’re insulting their own gender. They’re laying it all out on the table themselves; men who are able to rape often do so to feel powerful, manly, strong, but even their own explanations use male weakness as the excuse. I’m sure people I’ve heard say this think they’re putting the blame on the female, turning her into a slut who deserved it, but you don’t have to be much smarter than a cockroach to see that they’re really relating themselves to children with no discipline, awareness of morality, or self-control. I know it will be impossible to convey this opinion to Musa, though.
-Do you think rape is a big problem? I ask.
-To rape an adult is not a problem. To rape a child it’s a problem.
-If someone raped your mother, would you be angry? I ask carefully.
In The Greatest Silence, Jackson asks this same question and the men all indicate that they would be furious, but they still don’t see the contradiction between their rapes and the reason they would seek revenge if a family member was violated. It’s as if they simply can’t make the connection between people they know, and anyone else as all being part of humanity, able to experience suffering and pain.
-If someone rapes my mother, he says and pauses. I would be upset. I would seek revenge.
-So, it’s okay for someone to rape an adult but not your mother? I ask calmly, keeping all judgment out of my voice.
Musa looks perplexed for a moment.
-If you find a Maman in the bush and force her, it’s normal rape, he says. But if you force her in the house it’s not rape.
At this last statement, Urbain starts laughing uncontrollably. I kick him inconspicuously in the shin, but he can’t control the laughter and the damage has been done. Musa looks around the room, now clearly uncomfortable and then stands up and says something.
-He says he doesn’t want to talk about the film anymore, Hangie translates as I glare at Urbain.
After we leave the prison, I’m elated that the men were honest, and even more convinced that supporting and educating men is vital to gender equality and protection of women. NGOs that support and educate women are endless, but there are two (primary) sides to gender and supporting only one can only go so far. The question that remains, however, is how do you decrease the rigidity of masculine identity roles and increase respect and empathy for women from the male perspective? We haven’t even achieved it in the United States, where gender equality has traveled a lot farther than it has in a third world, war torn country like Congo.