12 May, 2010

Kristof and the Congo

A little while ago, NYT's columnist Nicholas Kristof named a rape victim in one of his columns.

Here is a summary: 

(N)o humanitarian crisis generates so little attention per million corpses, or such a pathetic international response. 


"There were six who raped her. One raped me, too."

The soldiers left Jeanne and Chance, tightly tied up, and marched off into the forest with Jeanne's two daughters as prisoners. One daughter is 14, the other 16, and they have not been heard from since.


Jeanne and Chance contracted sexually transmitted diseases. Like other survivors in areas that are accessible, they receive help from the International Rescue Committee, but Chance still suffers pain when she urinates.


Counselors say that most raped women are rejected by their husbands, and raped girls like Chance have difficulty marrying. In an area west of Lake Kivu where attacks are continuing, I met Saleh Bulondo, a newly homeless young man who was educated and spoke a little English. I asked him if he would still marry his girlfriend if she were raped.

"Never," he said. "I will abandon her."

A girl here normally fetches a bride price (a reverse dowry, paid by the husband's family) when she marries. A village chief told me that a typical price would be 20 goats — but if the girl has been raped, two goats. At most.

There was outcry (1, 2, 3, 4 - to name but a few)

Kristof wrote this in response.

"(L)ikewise, I didn't include the home town of the women involved. My decision to use names also reflected the isolation of the areas involved. In last Sunday's column, for example, the dateline was Kalehe, the nearest "city," but the individuals I wrote about live a five-hour hike from Kalehe. Nobody in the area ever sees any newspaper or the Internet. Indeed, many had never heard of President Obama, and some of those who had heard of him didn't know if he is black or white. The people there speak no English and minimal French. In short, it seems to me that there's zero chance that the column or video is going to reach these communities in which these women live or haunt them in any way. (They realized that, and it's one reason why they were so forthcoming.). This issue reflects a broader tension between journalists, whose instinct is to publish, and aid workers engaged in protection issues, whose instinct is to shield individuals. My own take is that journalists are sometimes too quick to publish, and aid workers sometimes too quick to protect individuals. ...  I identified the Congo rape victims by name because I had permission and because I was completely confident that they wouldn't get in trouble, and because I think that's the only way to raise the issue on the agenda and stop this kind of sexual predation. But plenty of people will disagree, and in any case I'll be consulting with editors on these identification questions in the future. I also welcome your thoughts on this topic, particularly from aid workers, assault survivors and journalists." 

I wanted to respond when this all went down - but decide to wait a bit. I understand his point of wanting to bring a face and a name to what is happening in the Congo, but what happened to the whole "we will call her Sarah" for keeping the victim's name a secret while giving her a name? And what is that BS about her never finding out? No one will ever meet one of the girls who goes through the assessment center in Cambodia - but we still don't take a picture of her and show it all over the U.S. Why? R-E-S-P-E-C-T. 

I also think there needs to be a feeling that these girls were used again by Kristof to sell a story. It is unimaginable (and yet happens 100s of times daily in the Congo). How he described the rape (which I did not include) makes me cringe - and I know this stuff. 

It was wrong - plain and simple. For Kristof's desire to sell a story and "raise awareness" about the Congo he raped these girls again by selling their stories, exploiting it and using it to prove a point.

The story could have been just as good without publishing the girls' names and pictures

Nii Akuettheh wrote a letter to Mr. Kristof - not about this article, but about his writing on the Congo in general. While praising Kristof for his work, he ponders why the Congo has received so little attention. 

His conclusion: Unlike Haiti, the Congolese catastrophe is man-made. And unlike Darfur, the villains in Congo are not enemies of the West. ... hus in the Congo, the West collectively will find the Messiah role impossible to pull off. Consequently, it is expecting too much that Western leaders would voluntarily confess their costly Congo blunders to their decent, no-nonsense publics, even if the Congo death toll has exceeded six million.

He encourages Kristof to get involved in the "Break the Silence" campaign and bring awareness to that measure, made up of Congolese in the U.S. to end the war in their country. It takes the spotlight off Kristof (gasp!) and puts it on the Congolese. Turn people towards an organization that is working in the Congo - make it a collective effort not just about one man. In his original article Kristof offers NO ways for you to help women in the Congo who have been raped. He doesn't tell you about Women2Women or the Panzi hospital, or any of the dozens of other organizations working there. He doesn't tell you to call your representative and demand that H.R. 4128 gets passed.  He does nothing but shock you by how brutal the girls were raped and then tell you they have no hope. 

What good does that do anyone?

Friends of the Congo  had four suggestions of things that Mr. Kristof could do to help end the Congo.

Number One - Listen to the Congolese. - Not use, exploit or name in a story - but LISTEN.