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Attempts To Address Rape In Congo Produced Unintended Consequences


But for now, we're going to switch gears to a story out of the Democratic Republic of Congo. It's a country that doesn't often make it into the headlines, despite a long-simmering war. When it does make news, it's often about a war crime for which the country is infamous - armed groups using rape as a weapon of war. Westerners' attempts to address this crisis have produced some unintended consequences. This story comes from our new podcast, Rough Translation. Here's host and correspondent Gregory Warner.

GREGORY WARNER, BYLINE: I met Deborah in a rainy outdoor cafe on the eastern border of the Democratic Republic of Congo. She asked that I not use her last name because she was worried she'd pay a price for telling her story. Deborah is 21 and grew up near the Congolese city of Minova. When she was small and she'd go into the forest to collect firewood, her mother would give her the same warning every time - that a girl who's been raped can never be married because a raped woman has no value in Congo.

DEBORAH: (Through interpreter) ...Especially the women. They would laugh when a woman is passing, saying that she's now worthless, and she has a disease.

WARNER: By the time Deborah was a teenager and there was a lot of international attention to this problem, she says that aid agencies would come to her town with money and food for rape victims, and she felt jealous.

DEBORAH: (Through interpreter) Yes. Others were being fed, and we would be sleeping hungry.

WARNER: When she was 16, her father died. And it fell on her and her older sister to support the family. The next time an aid agency passed through town looking for rape survivors, some women from a neighboring village told her, hey, you see that tent where that charity's handing out food?

DEBORAH: (Through interpreter) Just come and say you were raped. You will be supported.

WARNER: Deborah was terrified. But finally, she got in line as well.

DEBORAH: (Through interpreter) They asked me my story, and I told them I had been raped by three armed men.

WARNER: She says she was given a bag of rice, a bag of peas and a jerrycan full of oil for cooking. But when she started cooking the food for her brothers, she lost her own appetite.

DEBORAH: (Through interpreter) I have stolen. I am a thief.

WARNER: That hard choice that Deborah made is so common in Congo that there is a name for it - fond de commerce. It's a French phrase meaning stock in trade or business. But in Congo, it's taken on a specific local meaning.

DOROTHEA HILHORST: A fond de commerce - it's a source of business.

WARNER: Dorothea Hilhorst is a professor of humanitarian aid and reconstruction at Erasmus University in Rotterdam.

HILHOSRT: My research in Congo started in 2011 when there were so many program for sexually violated women, it was almost impossible for a woman to engage in a program without sort of hinting at the fact that she was sexually violated.

WARNER: She says Congolese women figured out that if they told a rape story, they could have more access to services. And aid groups - the more rape survivors that they could say that they were helping, the more international donations they could draw.

HILHOSRT: NGOs would have what they call antennas in local villages, and they would actually pay women according to the number of candidates for programs they could bring to the table.

WARNER: Christian Kilundu used to work for humanitarian aid agencies in Congo, and he says that he used to work as an antenna. He never explicitly told women to lie, but he didn't have to. He'd just go to a village in his aid agency T-shirt, tell them how many rape survivors he needed to count that day.

CHRISTIAN KILUNDU: They're very easy to get. If you want a hundred raped women, I'll get them.

WARNER: So did you feel like you were telling a lie, or did you feel like you were helping the poor?

KILUNDU: For me, at that time, I knew that I was helping the poor.

WARNER: Rape is a real crisis in Congo. Every expert I spoke to said this. And professor Hilhorst said the approach of aid agencies has changed since when she first started studying this in 2011. They've shifted from targeting aid directly at individual rape survivors to investing more in communitywide programs. But she says there has been a disturbing local aftermath that's made it even harder for real rape survivors to be heard. Local Congolese are more likely to hear any rape story that's told publicly as just another fond de commerce, a scheme.

KILUNDU: Yes, for me, that's - I can think that she's not the real victim of that.

WARNER: Christian Kilundu tells me, when he hears a woman talking confidently about her survival after rape...

KILUNDU: ...Like strong women in the community.

WARNER: He assumes she must be pulling a con

KILUNDU: I doubt.

WARNER: This doubt from husbands, local journalists, Congolese politicians, even - this may be the most unsettling consequence of turning rape stories into a currency to trade with the West - not that this incentive may sometimes lead to false stories, but that the real stories start to be discounted. And I met one person in Congo who is trying to give these stories back the value of truth.

JUSTIN CIKURU: My name is Justin Cikuru. I'm a clinical psychologist.

WARNER: He leads group therapy sessions at Panzi Hospital, one of the top hospitals in eastern Congo. And he begins each session with a disclaimer.

CIKURU: Hello. (Speaking Swahili).

WARNER: He says no one who tells a story here will get money for her story or food for her story.

CIKURU: Don't expect this. Don't expect this. Don't expect this. What I want to you is to tell me the truth.

WARNER: Nvinto Ngikima is a client at Panzi. She says that this idea of telling her story for nothing in return - it was weird.

NVINTO NGIKIMA: (Through interpreter) Talking was difficult for all of us.

WARNER: She and the other women would sit down and try to tell their stories. And then...

NGIKIMA: (Through interpreter) When the person tries to tell the hard part of their story, she starts to cry. She cannot continue telling the story.

WARNER: So today, in this group therapy session, there's a musician in the corner. It makes it feel more like church. And the musician plays a beat. Justin tells the women to think of the stories that just come into their heart. And then they'll weave the stories together into lyrics for songs that they'll sing, and record and send out to Congolese radio stations. Nvinto Ngikima says she likes the idea of her ex-husband hearing that song.

NGIKIMA: (Through interpreter) I wish that these songs that we are singing here goes to the community and touch, first, men.

WARNER: So today, if you're driving your car through Bukavu, you might turn on the radio and hear a song like this - women singing about what happened to them. But the song is anonymous and collective.


WARNER: The lyrics go, if you look at me, you'll see a woman who smiles. You wouldn't know that my heart is in pieces. My dreams are broken. In my world, I'm nothing but a means to do harm.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Gregory Warner is the host of NPR's Rough Translation, a podcast about how things we're talking about in the United States are being talked about in some other part of the world. Whether interviewing a Ukrainian debunker of Russian fake news, a Japanese apology broker navigating different cultural meanings of the word "sorry," or a German dating coach helping a Syrian refugee find love, Warner's storytelling approach takes us out of our echo chambers and leads us to question the way we talk about the world. Rough Translation has received the Lowell Thomas Award from the Overseas Press Club and a Scripps Howard Award.