Telling an Awful Story to the World


How do you tell an awful story to the world?

You can begin by saying it plainly: in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, where 5.4 million have been killed in the deadliest war since World War II, women and girls are targeted by a pandemic of sexual violence and rape on a scale never before seen on the planet.

"Often successful in its intent to destroy and exterminate, rape as a weapon of war is causing the near total destruction of women, their families, and their communities," said a recent report from The Enough Project titled Getting Serious About Ending Conflict and Sexual Violence in Congo.

A lot of people are working to alert the world to a gruesome reality that's simmered for more than a decade in silence. But in a global context where humanitarian crises are too common, and where the concerns of both African nations and women are hardly centered in media and government, how can the DRC's story be told to incite compassion in the massive proportions necessary for change?

"In Congo, because of the complexity of the conflict, to get Americans and other overseas people to see what's happening, you have to have a narrative, a hook," said Colin Thomas-Jenson, co-author of The Enough Project's report. "It sounds crude, but you need to draw people in."

The key is, Thomas-Jenson says, to tell the DRC's story so that it triggers "an existing constituency" that will challenge the normalization of sexual violence that targets Congolese women and girls. "With Darfur, the narrative is genocide. The word is so loaded, it tells a story itself. And it immediately activated a certain constituency. The Jewish community was very seized."

Policy and activist efforts, then, are currently focused on grassroots communications strategies — that is, telling the story of the DRC via blogs, media coverage, film, and research — with the belief that once people see themselves as part of the story, they will move emphatically towards change.

And in Congo, the initial communications attention is aimed for the constituencies built around women's empowerment. "The narrative that's most compelling here is the victim's perspective. And we see women as the principle victims in Congo," says Thomas-Jenson. With V-Day and Women for Women International championing the human rights of women in eastern Congo, conveying their stories to their partners and beyond, the hope is that a political and humanitarian response will be swift.

Because, Thomas-Jenson emphasizes, more than charity is needed.

Nita Evale, a Congolese woman who is vice chair of Congo Global Action, has chosen to become another one of the storytellers of Congo's crisis.

"Congo is my country and just watching it die slowly wasn't an option any longer," Evale said. "I was waiting for some hero to come and rescue my people but quickly realized that that hero didn't exist. I had to do something to that when a hero ever comes, he will at least find a country to save."

Through CGA, Evale mobilizes a coalition of activist organizations to build awareness and pressure a political response. CGA recently held a legislative advocacy day and workshop series in Washington, D.C. The event connected the rape pandemic with the "raping" of the DRC's land of natural resources, and on governance and post-conflict issues.

It's a storytelling tactic that, Evale said, works. "The conference went really well, even exceeded my expectations," she said.

What are the specific political interventions that might change the DRC's course?

The Enough Project puts forth a plan of peacemaking, protection, punishment, and prevention. It calls for, among many other things, maintaining and consolidating the DRC's ceasefire; increasing the presence of UN peacemakers; the U.S. Senate's passage of the International Violence Against Women Act (S. 2279); and, via funding, vetting, and training, international support for the DRC's security sector reform.

One of the most catalyzing narratives put forth comes via Lisa Jackson's new documentary, The Greatest Silence: Rape in Congo.

The film centers the raped women and girls in eastern DRC who tell the stories that have been largely ignored by the international community. Jackson shared her own story of being gang-raped in Washington D.C. with the Congolese women, and thus built an uncommon intimacy into her film. Jackson also touches on the political context that makes such massive sexual violence possible — for example, the Rwandan genocide that led thousands of soldiers to cross the DRC's eastern border, and the plundering of diamonds, gold, coltan (a metal used in all cell phones and laptops) and other rich Congolese resources. As well, Jackson brings forth the voices of the rapists in disturbing interviews with young soldiers.

Aired on HBO, winner of a Sundance Festival jury prize, and shown on screens ranging from local documentary festivals to a European Union commission, Jackson's striking film is having an impact.

"Women, and sometimes men, can't get a question out (during the Q&A session) because they're crying so hard," Jackson said. "I can't wait to go back to the Congo. I'm taking pictures of the diverse audiences, and I want to show their reactions to the women in the film. I want to show them that their stories are being heard."

But Jackson says that one of the most common question she hears — even from avid documentary audiences, who she cites as being particularly aware of world affairs — is: Why haven't I heard of this before?

"They're shocked at the extent of the catastrophe," Jackson said. "Many of them didn't even know there was a war."

Many bloggers have been activated by Jackson's film. They're writing about eastern Congo's women, developing resource pages for action, and building online collaborations. April 13 was a coordinated day where bloggers of all stripes committed to collectively sharing Congo's story.

Some bloggers wrote in tribute to Jackson's film, others offered contact information for legislators and activist groups, and still others reflected on how the current crisis emerges from a long history of damage.

"If there is anything to take away from the (Jackson's) film, from knowing about this horrific and inexcusable outrage, it's that the women who told their stories survived," wrote the blogger Anxious Black Woman in her April 13 post. "Those women broke their silence. Like our ancestral mothers before them, they found a song or they have created 'a way out of no way.'"

Jackson believes we are only seeing the very beginning of Congo's deep stories reaching a global audience.

"There are other filmmakers who want to do pieces on Congo's conflict, there's blogs and online columns, and a whole new class of art emerging," she said. "I hope people take this up on a grassroots level, by taking money out of investments and, since its now on the congressional record, there are senators and representatives that can be addressed."

But the most important thing?

"Become more informed," Jackson said.

Which means not just being storytellers, but listeners.

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