In scriptures, poetry, constitutions and leaders’ pledges to protect all members of the state, women are often listed with children or others rendered “vulnerable” by circumstance. The woman citizen is imagined as less adult. Is it possible that vocabularies that consider women as objects make a quiet argument that the assault on our person is inevitable? Gender-based violence is widespread, the statistics staggering regardless of the victim’s age, economic status or nationality.
Numerous studies indicate that victims of domestic, sexual and conflict-related assault are targeted primarily by gender. According to a 2013 report by the World Health Organization, 35.6 percent of women have been harmed by an intimate or a stranger or both. As many as 38 percent of all murdered women are killed by a partner, compared with 6 percent of all murdered men. These traumas more than double survivors’ rates of psychological torment and alcohol addiction. With 42 percent of women who have been physically and/or sexually abused by a partner experiencing injuries as a result of such abuse, gender violence is a global health crisis.
In conflict-challenged regions, women and children are especially susceptible to attack by assailants who, in part, consider their bodies part of a territory to conquer. There remains a lack of reliable data on violence experienced by a nonpartner and violence in conflict-affected settings.
“When we think of war, we think of it as something that happens to men in fields or jungles,” writes Eve Ensler, the artist and founder of V-Day, a movement to end gender violence. “But after the bombing, after the snipers, that’s when the real war begins.”
Women and girls are unfairly targeted and disproportionately affected by assault in societies around the world. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, soldiers raped and assaulted dozens of women and girls in November 2012, while a devastating breast-ironing practice in Cameroon teaches women and girls to be responsible for preventing rape by deforming their bodies. A rigorous application of the law is one of the most effective ways to change rape culture.
A Siege on Civilians: The Aftermath of Minova
For 10 days in November 2012, soldiers in the Congo army seized the market town of Minova. In a sequence of attacks that seemed determined to raze the morale of ordinary citizens, at least 76 women and girls were raped. It should be noted that other reports estimate hundreds of assaults during those 10 days. The findings in a 2013 report by the UN Joint Human Rights Office indicated that “rape is used as a weapon of war to intimidate local communities, and to punish civilians for their real or perceived collaboration with armed groups or the national army.”
Most of these rapes were committed “during attacks aimed at gaining control of territories rich in natural resources.” There are devastating metaphorical links between women and properties, solidified by social practices around the world. The mythology of the fertile woman becomes tangled with invasions of verdant land.
Following domestic and international outcry and a demand to apply the government’s zero tolerance policy toward these crimes, four officers and 25 rank-and-file soldiers of the Congolese army were put on trial in Goma in 2014, representing the largest rape trial in the nation’s history. Seventy-five survivors gave testimony, veiled by curtains or clothing to protect their identities. The verdict was given by a local military court: while 39 were accused, only two low-ranking soldiers were convicted, each for one assault.
Since the Minova attacks, there have been incremental improvements in the carriage of justice. According to the UN Joint Human Rights Office report, there were “187 convictions by military jurisdictions for sexual violence between July 2011 and December 2013, with sentences ranging from 10 months to 20 years of imprisonment.” When President Joseph Kabila addressed Parliament on Oct. 23, 2013, he vowed to make the Congo “an inhospitable land for the perpetrators of these heinous crimes.”
On Dec. 12, 2013, Kabila signed an accord in Nairobi, refusing amnesty for war crimes committed by rebel soldiers. The protocols launched in 2014 were revised in 2017. Although faced with local instabilities and waning international support, organizers and survivors in the Congo continue to lead the fight toward justice and healing.
“People think that, after being raped, you are just a victim . . . life goes on after rape. Rape is not the end. It is not a fixed identity,” said Jeanna Mukuninwa, aged 28, from the Congo.
Painful Protections in Cameroon
In 2014, Julie Ada Tchoukou published one of the most comprehensive studies on breast ironing in Cameroon, a mutilating practice “whereby a young girl’s developing breasts are pounded, pressed or massaged with an object usually heated in a wooden fire, to make them stop developing, grow more slowly or disappear completely” to protect her from sexual knowledge and attack. The much-cited 2006 report, published by the German Society for International Cooperation (a development agency), but no longer online, found that “25% of all girls and women had experienced some form of breast ironing in their lives, although the prevalence rates differ depending on location.”
Lasting effects include cysts, mastitis, disfiguration, inability to breast-feed and depression. Tragically, the very act meant to prepare a girl for sexual engagement within acceptable parameters may leave her less emotionally and physically capable of enjoying the pleasures of womanhood. Chi Yvonne Leina, the founder of Gender Danger (a grass-roots organization aimed at ending breast ironing), relates a particularly disturbing account of a woman named Geneva Ikome who ironed her own breasts in primary school, calling herself “a victim of breast ironing, and a perpetrator, too.”
Tchoukou notes the use of the grinding stone, inferring that guardian women in Cameroon “believe that the preferred tool used in breast flattening can reconstruct breast tissue in the same way it transforms spices.”
Absurdly, in Vice’s coverage of the practice in 2015, the magazine mentions Gildas Paré (who made portraits of survivors and breast-ironing implements) as a former food photographer. It’s worth stating the difficulty in tracing studies and their methodologies — and too-often ethnographic approaches — to documenting this traumatic practice. In recent years, Western attention on breast ironing increased when the British Parliament attempted to address the issue in its own population.
Another factor affecting statistics and narrative framing of breast ironing is a girl’s will to protect her female guardian. The assumed right to protect girls from violence with violence is one response from the defensive positioning many women take to stay alive. This vigilance may be a corrupted survival instinct, formed from a long and brutal education.
Revising Culture: Changing Expectations
Social expectations for girls and women, which emphasize passivity, silence and innocence, place the burden of assault on the victim. Further, shallow definitions of honor and devoted motherhood are troubled by the effects of this abuse, which more than double survivors’ rates of psychological torment, alcohol addiction and induced abortion as compared with women who haven’t suffered from this violence. The private spheres evade application of law, and this abuse becomes secret or codified as “culture.”
“The perpetrators thought that they were untouchable, that nothing would happen to them,” Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, the executive director of UN Women, said in her March 2018 address to the Commission on the Status of Women. “The tipping point that we are now talking about is the change of that culture.”
A version of this article originally appeared in ZEKE magazine. https://zekemagazine.atavist.com/spring-2018#chapter-3737671
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Ladan Osman is a Somali-American poet and teacher. Her poetry is centered on her Somali and Muslim heritage and has been published in a number of prominent literary magazines. In 2014, she was awarded the annual Sillerman First Book Prize for her collection “The Kitchen Dweller’s Testimony.” Her next book, “Exiles of Eden,” is to be published by Coffee House Press in 2019.
Osman earned a bachelor’s degree from Otterbein University, in Westerville, Ohio. She has an M.F.A. from the University of Texas at Austin’s Michener Center for Writers. She lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.