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Men Missing in News Coverage of Sexual Violence in Congo

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News coverage of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's recent trip to Africa provides useful examples of how power and privilege play out in the 24/7 media environment. By many accounts the trip was a big success. Clinton achieved one of her central goals: to bring international media attention to African women's lives, and especially to the devastations of sexual violence in the Congo. But certain aspects of the coverage blunted the trip's potentially positive effects.

For example, mainstream accounts of Clinton's visit to the Congo played up her exchange with a young man at a public event in Kinshasa, where Ms. Clinton testily responded to the student's question seeking "President Clinton's" opinion about a political issue. It turned out the student had misspoken, and had meant to ask about President Obama, the man whose administration Ms. Clinton represents. But Hillary Clinton was evidently irritated that once again, her own opinions and experience were seemingly being overlooked in favor of the sexist presumption that a woman leader is merely the mouthpiece for a more powerful man.

Many millions of women have found themselves in similar exchanges over the past few decades -- albeit in front of a much dimmer spotlight. Hillary Clinton inspires such passionate support among millions of women in part because they identify directly with her struggles as a woman to be heard. Clinton's ordeals resonate with special power among women who came of age during and after the 1960s, when much greater numbers of women began to assert their individual and collective voices, and threaten the centrality of (mainly white) men's needs, experiences and opinions - especially in the public realm.

Secretary Clinton's dialogue with the student in Kinshasa -- and the chord it touched as a news story -- provided fresh evidence that despite a generation of feminist activism which inspired changes in countless laws and social practices, it is far from clear that in public life, women's experiences and voices count as much as men's. United States Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg recently provided an inside look at how this works in the highest provinces of power, when she questioned her own influence at justices' conferences: "I will say something -- and I don't think I'm a confused speaker -- and it isn't until somebody else says it that everyone will focus on the point."

Ginsburg was too politically cautious - or polite -- to note that the "somebody else" to whom she was referring was coded language for a man, whose opinion is deemed more valid by virtue of his sex. Men's expertise and opinions are routinely valued more than women's, whether in Africa or the United States.

How ironic and revealing, then, that "The Exchange" garnered so much media coverage during a trip to Africa where one of Ms. Clinton's goals was to use the power of her voice to highlight African women's lives. In particular, Clinton wanted to draw public attention to the ongoing tragedy of mass rapes of women, children and men in the Congo. She is the first U.S. secretary of state to travel to the war zone, and she announced a $17 million plan to fight sexual violence. Among other steps, the American government would train doctors, supply rape victims with cameras to document their injuries, and train Congolese law enforcement to crack down on rapists.

Corporate and independent media did cover this part of the story, although with nothing like the gusto with which they recounted Ms. Clinton's short-tempered response to the African student. Many American reporters in the ever-shrinking international press corps tried to convey the scope of the horrific suffering of women and children in the Congo, as well as communicate empathy with the emotional toll it all appeared to be taking on Ms. Clinton. "I was just overwhelmed by what I saw," she said. "It is almost impossible to describe the level of suffering." Several news accounts observed that Ms. Clinton seemed drained by the emotional experience.

Unfortunately, however, the focus in news stories on the almost-unimaginable sexual violence in the Congo had an unintended effect. It pushed women's lives to center stage, which is appropriate, necessary, and represents a big step forward. At the same time, it kept men out of the spotlight -- at just the wrong time. As noted above, male leaders often get too much credit, and our opinions are unfairly more valued than women's. But when it comes to being held responsible for the negative consequences of our behavior, including the widespread incidence of rape around the world, men are typically rendered invisible in the journalistic conversation.

Men's role in rape is characteristically hidden in mainstream journalism through a variety of linguistic conventions. One of the more significant of these is when writers and speakers use the passive voice - consciously or not -- to talk about incidents of sexual violence (e.g. "200,000 women have been raped since the conflict began."). In addition, men's central responsibility for the rape pandemic escapes critical examination whenever writers and speakers use gender-neutral terminology to talk about perpetrators, who are overwhelmingly men. An August 12 New York Times article reporting on Secretary Clinton's trip provides a good case study of these phenomena.

The article appeared beneath the fold on page A8, in the International section. It was headlined "Clinton Presents Plan to Fight Sexual Violence in Congo," by Jeffery Gettleman. The passive voice began in the first paragraph: "...Secretary Clinton...met a Congolese woman who had been gang-raped while she was eight months pregnant." Passive sentence structures that hid male perpetration appeared in subsequent paragraphs: "...hundreds of thousands of women have been raped in the past decade." "...countless women, and recently many men, have been raped." "Hundreds of villagers have been massacred." "The aid worker told Mrs. Clinton that an 8-year-old boy who had strayed out of the camp was raped the other day."

This brief catalogue of passive sentences is not an attempt to single out the New York Times reporter for criticism. He was merely a vehicle for the transmission of the dominant ideology, which routinely obfuscates men's culpability for rape through both conscious and unconscious omissions. Victims themselves often use passive voice. Gettleman quoted one woman, Mrs. Mapendo, who said "Our life is very bad. We get raped when we go out and look for food. "Another woman said "Children are killed, women are raped and the world closes its eyes."

In addition to the passive language, the photo accompanying the story showed Ms. Clinton in an outdoor meeting with a throng of Congolese women. There was not a man's face in sight. In fact, the only mention of the word "men" in the entire 1029 word article was in reference to men as victims of rape. If it had not been for that (welcome) acknowledgment of men's vulnerability and victimization, a naïve reader might have inferred that there are no men in the Congo, only "women and children who are raped and killed."

The New York Times article was also suffused with gender-neutral language, particularly language that could have identified the gender of the individuals and groups responsible for sex crimes. For example: "Often the rapists are Congolese soldiers," or "...Congo...has become a magnet for all the rogue groups in Africa." Ms. Clinton was quoted as saying that the world needed to regulate the mineral trade to make sure the profits do not end up "in the hands of those who fuel the violence."

But while the gender of the perpetrators is obscured, the gender of the victims is stated plainly. The following sentence provides a clear illustration of this: "...an intensely predatory conflict driven by a mix of ethnic, commercial, nationalist, and criminal interests, in which various armed groups often vent their rage against women." This type of language usage is ubiquitous in contemporary journalism. When the perpetrators are men, their gender is not mentioned ("armed groups.") When the victims are women, their gender is in full view.

The result is that discussions about sex crimes, in the Congo and elsewhere, focus on what is happening to women, and not on who is doing it to them. In practice, this has obvious repercussions for so-called prevention efforts, which as a result of their focus on women, often amount to mere band-aid solutions. Of course rape victims and survivors need better medical and counseling services. But let's not mistake those services for prevention -- which can only be successful to the extent that men and boys are a part of them.

There is a growing movement to engage men and boys in sexual and domestic violence prevention in the United States, sub-Saharan Africa, and around the globe. But those efforts face an uphill climb in societies where cultural norms about masculinity both contribute directly to the violence and prevent women and men from speaking freely about men's responsibilities to end it.

This is not merely an academic debate about linguistic practices. Linguistic choices have practical consequences, especially in terms of what sorts of issues get discussed, and by whom, on the main streets and in the back rooms and shadowy corridors of power. As long as political leaders and policy makers - in national and international contexts -- focus on rape primarily as a women's issue, strategies for addressing it will tend to emphasize services for victims and survivors, rather than accountability for perpetrators, or more critical attention to how we socialize boys.

Unfortunately, the failure of journalists and others to use active language to describe who is doing what to whom, as well as their hesitation to use gender-specific language to talk about men and boys as the perpetrators of sexual violence, make it next to impossible to hold male (and female) leaders accountable for addressing these problems forthrightly. As a result, the struggle to bring a critical mass of men into the social change process necessary to achieve significant reductions in gender-based violence continues. Women -- along with a small number of male allies -- continue to mourn the victims, care for the survivors, and pick up the broken pieces in the lives of their traumatized children. And across the world we lurch endlessly from one preventable tragedy to the next.