The Crime Without a Name


(Two young girls who were raped in the DRC and are too young for fistula surgery. It is not permitted to show the faces of these young girls.)

I have been thinking about a response my sister made to one of my posts about rape as a weapon of war (“Women in the Congo” 10/09/07). She wrote:

Do you think all of the focus on the word “genocide” makes issues like this one harder to act on internationally, when a gender, not a race or ethnic group or nationality, is being attacked, and not necessarily being “exterminated” but attacked with a specialized, sexualized tactic of brutality? Have there been political or anthropological analyses of this outbreak/growth of extreme violence against women in the Congo?

At the League of Nations conference in 1933 Raphael Lemkin, a polish Jew, argued to outlaw “race murder”. He was laughed out by people who believed that this crime took place too seldom to legislate. In 1941, Lemkin managed to escape the Holocaust with his life and became convinced that the “crime without a name” needed a word that would connote the ultimate moral imperative and thus trigger action. He invented the word “genocide” in 1944. The word genocide today signfies the massive and intentional annihilation of an entire group (the specifics of the legal definition are more detailed) based upon nationality, race, ethnicity, or religion.

But what if there existed an unlegislated horror as hideous as extermination? An unparalleled tool of destruction that leaves its victims silent and mutilated, but alive. And what if, to an unprecedented and undeniable degree, the victims were targeted not for what they had done, said, or believed–but for what they were?

In the same way that Raphael Lemkin was moved to speak out about race murder after over 1 million Armenians were annihilated by the Turk regime in the early 20th Century, so too have a few brave witnesses been willing to speak out about the tens of thousands of women brutally raped every year in the Congo. U.N. crisis expert Kathleen Cravero has said that although rape has always been used as a weapon of war, the type of brutality inflicted on women today is unprecedented. She notes that not even history’s most notorious warmongers would have mutilated women’s bodies in the same way as the Congolese rebels and militia are doing. We are in the midst of a 21st Century crime without a name.

Dr. Denis Mukwege works in the Congo to provide support and treatment for women who have been raped and tortured during the conflicts that officially ended in 2003 but have raged unabated for the women of the region. “At the beginning I used to hear patients’ stories,” Dr Mukwege says. “Now I abstain.” The stories I have read are descriptions of hell too hideous to report here. Recounting the traumas, tortures, and the hell lived by these women on such an undistiguished forum seems trivializing. I can imagine few forums with the strength to bear the weight of their stories.


(Women at Dr. Mukwege’s Panzi Hospital)

And just as others dismissed the universal importance that Lemkin argued of race murder, people today claim that the accounts coming out of the Congo are unique and specific to that conflict–not something that could affect the greater part of the world. But the changing nature of conflict, a root cause according to Cravero of the increasing vulnerability and brutalization of women, is not limited to the Congo. Wars are being waged to a much lesser extent between countries with formal armies and increasingly within countries between militias and rebel groups without formal observances of conduct rules. Sudan, Iraq, Israel-Hezbollah, Somalia, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Uganda, Colombia… This changing nature of conflict isn’t unique to the Congo. Unfortunately neither will the sexualized tactic of brutality against women, as Julie succinctly described it, be contained in its heart of darkness.

Like Lemkin we must name the horror. Eva Ensler, author of the Vagina Monologues, calls it “femicide”–the attempted destruction of women. The word has been used quietly in places like Guatemala and the border towns of Mexico for years, but never has the international community acknowledged it with an international convention. The word in unknown, the crimes are unnamed, and we are poised to make the same mistake. “Lemkin,” they said, “this crime that you describe takes place to seldom to legislate.” Six years later Hitler would invade Poland, and Lemkin would lose 49 member of his family in the Holocaust.


(Kathleen Cravero stands with her arms crossed on her chest to show support for the effort of ‘Stop Rape Now: UN Action Against Sexual Violence in Conflict’ the new joint initiative involving 10 UN agencies.)

  • November 14th, 6-7:30, Center for American Progress 10th Floor (1333 H Street NW, Washington DC 20005) Attend a presentation by Dr. Mohammed Ahmed on “Today in Darfur: What’s Really Happening on the Ground.” Dr. Ahmed, who treats torture survivors in Darfur, has worked tirelessly to create a network of health providers to care for victims of torture and sexual violence, which has become a hallmark of the brutal genocide in Darfur. He is in town to receive the 2007 RFK Human Rights Award. Talk to Matt, I’m pretty sure he’s planning on going.
  • Educate Yourself
  • UNICEF campaign to end the femicide in DR Congo. Write a letter addressed to His Excellency, the President of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Joseph Kabila Kabange. Demand that he take action to stop the attacks on women and support the hospitals and services that are helping women to heal. Send it to:

    U.N. Action Against Sexual Violence in Conflict,
    P.O. Box 3862
    New York, NY 10163

    Your letter will be delivered to Kabila.

  • Run for Women in the Congo

Responsibility to Protect,


2 Responses

  1. Katie, thank you for this eloquent and thoughtful post. It gives me much to think about, and I will post more reflections about what you say here.

  2. Katie, this is an amazing thing what you are doing. I already knew alot about what was going on in Congo, but it seems that everyday I learn more about it, and want to do more to help.

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