Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Congolese Soldiers Have a New Strategy -- Raping Men

Soldiers are raping men in the Congo. I really do not know what to say. On one hand, I am troubled that we live in a patriarchal culture that sanctions sexual violence against women but when men are subjected to the same kinds of patriarchal violence it’s front page news, in The New York Times, no less. On the other hand, I know very well, how isolating this experience must be for the men who were assaulted. In the end it demonstrates that rape and sexual violence are considered to be legitimate weapons of war and that the state, in this case the Congolese Army, will not hesitate to use them when they think necessary.

Tragically, these men who have been raped find that their experiences mirror those of women who were the victims of the same violence. Rather than help them, people in their communities deride them, calling them “bush wives.” One survivor stated “The people in my village say: ‘You’re no longer a man. Those men in the bush made you their wife.’” Of course, that is precisely the point, the soldiers are raping men, in their efforts to weaken the resolve of Congolese rebels and “humiliate and demoralize Congolese communities into submission.” And their stories are horrific -- one man was raped by five soldiers, another thrown on the ground in his casava patch and raped by three soldiers. Another was raped along with his wife and daughter. What are these men to do when no one takes their victimization seriously? I am not suggesting that the violence done against them is worse than what happens to women, but because of patriarchy and how sexual violence against women is normalized there are at least spaces to name that violence. Patriarchy denies men those spaces and I think part of the work of gender justice is also learning to understand how patriarchy hurts both men and women.

This story just made me sick to my stomach and I didn’t know what to say. The article in the New York Times included photographs of some of the survivors (see above), men who were brave enough to come forward and publicly name their experiences. Their faces stay with me, I cannot get them out of my mind. When will this end, when will human beings stop enacting such brutal violence against each other?

I wish I knew the answer.

New York Times

Latest Tragic Symbol of an Unhealed Congo: Male Rape Victims

August 4, 2009

GOMA, Congo — It was around 11 p.m. when armed men burst into Kazungu Ziwa’s hut, put a machete to his throat and yanked down his pants. Mr. Ziwa is a tiny man, about four feet, six inches tall. He tried to fight back, but said he was quickly beaten down.

“Then they raped me,” he said. “It was horrible, physically. I was dizzy. My thoughts just left me.”

For years, the thickly forested hills and clear, deep lakes of eastern Congo have been a reservoir of atrocities. Now, it seems, there is another growing problem: men raping men.

According to Oxfam, Human Rights Watch, United Nations officials and several Congolese aid organizations, the number of men who have been raped has risen sharply in recent months, a consequence of joint Congo-Rwanda military operations against rebels that have uncapped an appalling level of violence against civilians.

Aid workers struggle to explain the sudden spike in male rape cases. The best answer, they say, is that the sexual violence against men is yet another way for armed groups to humiliate and demoralize Congolese communities into submission.

The United Nations already considers eastern Congo the rape capital of the world, and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton is expected to hear from survivors on her visit to the country next week. Hundreds of thousands of women have been sexually assaulted by the various warring militias haunting these hills, and right now this area is going through one of its bloodiest periods in years.

The joint military operations that began in January between Rwanda and Congo, David and Goliath neighbors who were recently bitter enemies, were supposed to end the murderous rebel problem along the border and usher in a new epoch of cooperation and peace. Hopes soared after the quick capture of a renegade general who had routed government troops and threatened to march across the country.

But aid organizations say that the military maneuvers have provoked horrific revenge attacks, with more than 500,000 people driven from their homes, dozens of villages burned and hundreds of villagers massacred, including toddlers thrown into open fires.
And it is not just the rebels being blamed.

According to human rights groups, soldiers from the Congolese Army are executing civilians, raping women and conscripting villagers to lug their food, ammunition and gear into the jungle. It is often a death march through one of Africa’s lushest, most stunning tropical landscapes, which has also been the scene of a devastatingly complicated war for more than a decade.

“From a humanitarian and human rights perspective, the joint operations are disastrous,” said Anneke Van Woudenberg, a researcher for Human Rights Watch.

The male rape cases span several hundred miles and possibly include hundreds of victims. The American Bar Association, which runs a sexual violence legal clinic in Goma, said that more than 10 percent of its cases in June were men.

Brandi Walker, an aid worker at Panzi hospital in nearby Bukavu, said, “Everywhere we go, people say men are getting raped, too.”
But nobody knows the exact number. Men here, like anywhere, are reluctant to come forward. Several who did said they instantly became castaways in their villages, lonely, ridiculed figures, derisively referred to as “bush wives.”

Since being raped several weeks ago, Mr. Ziwa, 53, has not shown much interest in practicing animal medicine, his trade for years. He limps around (his left leg was crushed in the attack) in a soiled white lab coat with “veterinaire” printed on it in red pen, carrying a few biscuit-size pills for dogs and sheep.

“Just thinking about what happened to me makes me tired,” he said. The same is true for Tupapo Mukuli, who said he was pinned down on his stomach and gang-raped in his cassava patch seven months ago. Mr. Mukuli is now the lone man in the rape ward at Panzi hospital, which is filled with hundreds of women recovering from rape-related injuries. Many knit clothes and weave baskets to make a little money while their bodies heal. But Mr. Mukuli is left out.

“I don’t know how to make baskets,” he said. So he spends his days sitting on a bench, by himself.

The male rape cases are still just a fraction of those against women. But for the men involved, aid workers say, it is even harder to bounce back.

“Men’s identity is so connected to power and control,” Ms. Walker said.
And in a place where homosexuality is so taboo, the rapes carry an extra dose of shame. “I’m laughed at,” Mr. Mukuli said. “The people in my village say: ‘You’re no longer a man. Those men in the bush made you their wife.’ ”

Aid workers here say the humiliation is often so severe that male rape victims come forward only if they have urgent health problems, like stomach swelling or continuous bleeding. Sometimes even that is not enough. Ms. Van Woudenberg said that two men whose penises were cinched with rope died a few days later because they were too embarrassed to seek help. Castrations also seem to be increasing, with more butchered men showing up at major hospitals.

Last year, Congo’s rape epidemic appeared to be easing a bit, with fewer cases reported and some rapists jailed. But today, it seems like that thin veneer of law and order has been stripped away. The way villagers describe it, it is open season on civilians.

Muhindo Mwamurabagiro, a tall, graceful woman with long, strong arms, explained how she was walking to the market with friends when they were suddenly surrounded by a group of naked men.

“They grabbed us by the throat and threw us down and raped us,” she said.
Worse, she said, one of the rapists was from her village. “I yelled, ‘Father of Kondo, I know you, how can you do this?’”

One mother said a United Nations peacekeeper raped her 12-year-old boy. A United Nations spokesman said that he had not heard that specific case but that there were indeed a number of new sexual abuse allegations against peacekeepers in Congo and that a team was sent in late July to investigate.

Congolese health professionals are becoming exasperated. Many argue for a political solution, not a military one, and say Western powers should put more pressure on Rwanda, which is widely accused of preserving its own stability by keeping the violence on the other side of the border.

“I understand the world feels guilty about what happened in Rwanda in 1994,” said Denis Mukwege, the lead doctor at Panzi Hospital, referring to Rwanda’s genocide. “But shouldn’t the world feel guilty about what’s happening in Congo today?”

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Assiya Rafiq: Fighting Sexual Violence in Pakistan

I sat down and just wrote a letter to the President of Pakistan. If he's anything like ours he probably won't ever read it but that's not the point. I was deeply moved by the story of Assiya Rafiq, a very brave young Pakistani woman who is demanding the prosecution of the two criminals and four police officers who raped and brutalized her . I think her story is compelling not only for exposing the sexual violence that rural Pakistani women are often subjected to but because of the way it reveals how processes of patriarchy, state corruption, and gender violence intersect. If you can, please write a letter to the Pakistani government in support of Miss Rafiq. There is a growing grassroots movement led by women to end sexual violence, particularly in rural communities and we should all try to support as much as possible. Working here in Bluefields, Nicaragua, I have been confronted with how pervasive sexual violence against women is here and how the silence of both the state and civil society reproduces the conditions that facilitate such violence. I don't think American feminists (of any color) should impose political projects on women in the Global South. But when those women are building an organic, grassroots movement for gender justice we'd be absolutely remiss not to follow their lead.

Here's a copy of my letter to President Asif Ali Zardari. It took me 10 minutes to write it. I think we can all spare 10 minutes for this, don't you? You can fax your letters to: President Asif Ali Zardari, President’s Avenue, Islamabad, Pakistan, fax: +92-51-9203297 or Mr. Mumtaz Gillani, Federal Minister for Human Rights, fax: +92-51-9244542. For more on Miss Rafiq's story check out this article in the New York Times.

Peace and blessings to all,

July 26, 2009
Re: The case of Miss Assiya Rafiq

Dear President Asif Ali Zardari:

I am writing you to tell you how devastated I am to hear about the case of Assiya Rafiq, a young woman who was sold to two men, subjected to a year of rape and beating, and after being handed over to the police was brutally raped by four police officers over a period of two weeks. It is horrible enough that she had to endure a year of such brutality but to be doubly victimized by those who are supposed to protect her is simply unconscionable.

Unlike many women who simply hide the shame of being raped, Miss Rafiq has taken a stand and is refusing to remain silent. She is demanding justice for the violence that was done against her and that the criminals and police who raped her be prosecuted and brought to justice. As a result she and her family are facing threats from the police, the criminals who raped and abused her, her brothers and sisters have had to leave school, and her family has lost its livelihood. Women will never be able to fight against rape and sexual violence in their communities while the state allows this kind of intimidation to continue. I urge you President Zardari to come out in support of Miss Rafiq and to assist in the prosecution of these perpetrators. Sexual violence against women is a global epidemic and we must all unite to stop it. However, nothing will ever change if governments do not come out and explicitly condemn these acts of violence against women. I believe that Pakistan can play a crucial role in changing global attitudes about sexual violence against women and taking a stand against this brutal act.

Women should not be shamed for violence that is done against them. Rape is not about lust or desire, it is about power and subordinating women. The government of Pakistan simply cannot allow women to continue to face ongoing violence when they refuse to be silent about rape and sexual abuse.

I urge you to take a clear stand on this matter and support not only Assiya Rafiq but all of the women and girls who have been subjected to this brutality. The two police officers whom betrayed her trust and raped her again and again instead of helping must be brought to justice. Don't turn your back on the women of Pakistan like so many others have. I know that you will follow your heart and do what is right to ensure that all of Pakistan's citizens enjoy a life free of violence and despair.


Courtney Morris
Bluefields, Nicaragua

Tuesday, March 17, 2009


"Inquisitive" by Courtney Desiree Morris, Bluefields, Nicaragua, Mar. 2009

"View from the Veranda"

"View fro the Veranda" by Courtney Desiree Morris, Bluefields, Nicaragua, Mar. 2009.


"Essential" by Courtney Desiree Morris, Bluefields, Nicaragua Mar. 2009

Tuesday, March 03, 2009


"Abandonada" by Courtney Desiree Morris, Bluefields, Nicaragua, Feb. 2009.

Sunday, February 08, 2009

The Sweet Music of Justice and Forgiveness

In 1957, Barbara Conrad was an undergraduate music student at the University of Texas at Austin. One of a small number of Black undergrads on campus at the time, she was determined to build a career as an opera singer despite the very real barriers that Jim Crow segregation and racism presented to her dream. In spite of the odds, the talented mezzo-soprano was cast that year to play the lead female role in the opera "Dido and Aeneas" opposite a white male lead. It should have been a cause for celebration. But this young opera singer became the center of a racial controversy that made its way all the up to the highest levels of state government, the Texas Legislature.

Shortly after the news spread that she had received the role all hell broke loose. According to the Austin American Statesman, Conrad began to receive threatening phone calls in her dormitory and one evening she was assaulted by two young white men as she made her way home. Still, she refused to give up the role. Black East Austinites began to get involved offering to provide transportation for Conrad and other Black students traveling to and from campus and keeping a watch over the women's dormitory on E. 12th Street. But, as the Statesman notes:

"That didn't stop the threats. Anonymous calls came into the office of UT fine arts Dean William Doty. And by April 1957, opposition to Conrad's pending May performance mounted in the Texas Legislature. Rep. Joe Chapman of Sulphur Springs, a leader of the House segregation bloc, warned UT officials that it would be a very bad move for the university's public relations. Though Chapman would deny that he threatened then-UT President Logan Wilson, the university's appropriations were about to come up before the Legislature.

Another state lawmaker was less evasive. Rep. Jerry Sadler, also a segregationist, denounced the university and told the Houston Post in an article about Conrad, "I mentioned appropriations and as a matter of fact voted against those for the university because they have Negro undergraduates."

Shortly thereafter, Conrad was removed from the role. The decision crushed Conrad, who, rather than choosing to leave the University (despite a rather tempting offer by Harry Belafonte, who offered to pay her tuition and fees at the school of her choosing if she wanted to leave Texas) she decided to stay and support the struggle to fully integrate the University. It seemed at the time that the segregationists had won.

But in 2009, Ms. Conrad is getting the last laugh. This past week, the Texas Legislature, the same body that had called for her removal more than fifty years ago, paid homage to the opera diva and passed a resolution in her honor. She also returned to the University of Texas at Austin to celebrate the re-opening of Bass Concert Hall, where she shared the stage with opera greats Frederica Von Stade and Samuel Ramey.

In a recent interview with the Austin American Statesman, Ms. Conrad spoke about her journey since 1957 and her genuine desire that this country begin to do the meaningful work of mending the damage that racial violence (of all kinds) has done to people. She stated,

"I've learned that if you have a gift, you have to share it. And this is a time when we need a lot of inspiration and healing. When you go through (what I did), you really want to transform it into something more positive. It's not just about my journey, it's a very big journey, for people of all races."

I had the pleasure of seeing Ms. Conrad finally perform and receive the recognition that she deserved at the University of Texas at Austin. If things have changed to such a degree at the University that we have the luxury of forgetting what Black people experienced and lived through in order to attend the state's flagship university, Ms. Conrad's story should remind us that we should never forget. Afterward I was able to meet her in person and she is divine. Personally, I was so struck by this women's dignity and grace in the face of so much bigotry and violence. In spite of living in a world that told her she would never be an opera singer for no other reason than being a Black woman, she defied them all and dared to create beauty when confronted with the ugliness of racial discrimination. She may not have been taking it to the streets but in her own way she fought to create a place in this world for Black women committed to the work of creating beauty. I think that's something to be proud of.

Thank you Ms. Conrad, you're amazing.