By: Laurabeth Goldsmith
The way rape is classified can have dangerous consequences on societal norms in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and on college campuses in the United States. Classifying some rapes as more serious offences than others can diminish the community response and severity of punishment for all perpetrators of rape. This societal classification system makes some perpetrators feel like their actions are not criminal or evil and leaves some victims feeling as though it is their fault or a natural societal consequence that they are raped. In war-torn countries and on college campuses, some forms of rape are normalized and decriminalized.
According to a cross-sectional study conducted in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 2010, 40% of Congolese women and 24% of Congolese men have experienced sexual assault. In the households surveyed, sixty-seven percent experienced human rights abuses related to the conflict. It is estimated that there are over 200,000 surviving rape victims living in the Democratic Republic of the Congo today and that 48 women are raped every hour in the country. The ongoing conflict in the DRC has led to a normalization of violence and rape. Violence has remained prevalent on an intermittent basis since King Leopold acquired the country as his own private colony in 1885, committing massive human rights abuses – including mass rape – in order to extract resources such as rubber from the region.
In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, traumatic gynecologic fistula (TGF) is a frequent result of sexual violence. TGF is “an abnormal opening between the reproductive tract of a woman or girl and one or more body cavities or surfaces, caused by sexual violence.” Traumatic gynecologic fistula is most common in conflict regions, and there are no solid estimates of its prevalence. That said, between 1999-2012 the Panzi hospital in Bukavu alone treated over 19,000 survivors for their injuries resulting from rape.
Maria Stern’s article Why Soldiers Rape partially untangles the complexities of sexual assault in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Soldiers interviewed for the article repeatedly argued that rape took different forms. As one male lieutenant explained, “There are different types of rape. They are all forbidden. There is the rape when a soldier is away, when he has not seen his women for a while and has needs and no money. This is the lust⁄need rape. But there are also the bad rapes, as a result of the spirit of war (…) to humiliate the dignity of people. This is an evil rape.” While there is no doubt that some rapes in the DRC cause more serious physical and psychological damages than others (including TGF), Stern defends the principle that there is no justification for lust rape. Classifying some rapes as fulfilling needs and others as an inevitable consequence of war diminishes the severity of the crime and helps to normalize such violence. Perpetrators are infrequently convicted due to the frequency of attacks, the current war-torn state of the country and the lack of political will and infrastructure to hold them accountable.
In the United States, terms like date rape, acquaintance rape, and rape light are frequently used to describe rape, especially on college campuses. According to a National Crime Victimization Study conducted in 2005, two thirds of rapes in the United States were committed by a person the victim already knew. In fact, thirty-eight percent of rapists were friends or acquaintances. Considering the high percentage of rapes that are committed by people known to the victims, it is vital that these rapes be treated as serious crimes and that perpetrators be found guilty, despite the increased difficulty in prosecuting non-stranger rape cases.
On college campuses, predatory behavior includes predators targeting victims and supplying them with large amounts of alcohol or drugs. This further complicates the idea of consent, considering people under the influence cannot legally consent. As David Lisak, a prominent scholar focusing on sexual assault, stated at a lecture at Emory, “We don’t like to think of ‘our’ people as criminals, and most of our people are not, but that very small number are sex offenders. And once the pattern is established, it tends not to be something that just stops—it tends to go on.”
A 2006-2010 National Crime Victimization Survey found that 54% of sexual assaults in the United States went unreported.Additionally, according to David Lisak’s research, two thirds of rapists were repeat offenders; the average rapist committed 5.8 rapes. As Vice President Biden recently stated, “Colleges and universities need to face the facts about sexual assault. No more turning a blind eye or pretending it doesn’t exist. We need to give victims the support they need, like a confidential place to go, and we need to bring the perpetrators to justice.” At present, only three percent of rapists in the United States ever spend a day in jail.
At universities, rape cases are often heard by student conduct boards rather than through the criminal justice system. These boards mete out minimal punishments, in effect classifying college rapes as a non-criminal offense. While students may still turn to the criminal justice system, the student conduct board system is often pushed upon students in order to decrease the number of sexual assaults that are reported in accordance with the Jeanne Clery Act. For example, at Brown University a man was suspended for just one semester after raping and choking a fellow student. Cases are currently pending against Columbia University, the University of Chicago, and Tufts University regarding Title IX violations which created an unsafe environment for victims of sexual assault.
While the situations in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the United States are extremely different in terms of the severity of abuses, the frequency of gang rape and the resources available for survivors, key similarities do exist. Unfortunately, in both countries a classification system which destigmatizes and decriminalizes some rape has emerged; unfortunately, in both countries the percentage of perpetrators sent to prison for their crimes is abominably low.
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