Rape Victims or Rape Survivors?

Last Tuesday, the Human Rights and Women’s Studies departments sponsored an event called “Worst Place to be a Woman.” Dr. Luhiri, a gynecologist who works in Panzi Hospital in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, came to talk about sexual violence in the Congo. Panzi Hospital is located in Bukavu in the province of South Kivu. The hospital’s doctors see about 3,500 women/day. Women have access to general health care, psychological counseling, HIV and STI testing, emergency contraception, and leadership programs, which help women reintegrate themselves into the community through leadership training. There is also a travelling emergency outreach program for women who have been abducted and raped by the guerilla. (Militia kidnap women to use them as spies, as their personal luggage carriers, for sex, and many other things).

Many of the women that Dr. Luhiri has treated have come in after being raped by multiple men. Some come with pieces of glass, knives, and/or bullets in their vagina. Others have been shot in the vagina after they have been raped. Most women develop a trauma fistula, which causes vaginal hemorrhaging and infertility. If the woman is fertile, she may have difficulties when giving birth. Psychologically, they are damaged by the rape, as well as by the rejection they receive from their families. Oftentimes, these women try to go back after they have been raped and been impregnated and are sent away in shame (as if it were their fault). Abortion is illegal in the Congo.

Should these women be seen as victims or survivors? International media definitely does a lot of reporting about the growing number of “rape victims” cases in countries in conflict. Do these titles become a new identity for these women? What are the effects of calling a woman a “rape victim” rather than a “rape survivor”? According to Dr. Luhiri, calling women who have been raped “rape victims” can be counterproductive when they are trying to go back to a normal life and regain physical and psychological stability. “Rape victims” suggests that these women have not been taken care of and their lives have stopped after being raped. “Rape survivors” have taken control of their lives again and have the ability to live normal lives within their communities.

I wonder whether these women feel that they DO have a new identity (encompassed in the terms of “rape victim” or “rape survivor”) and whether it is in conjunction with their previous identities or a new sole identity. What determines how you will see yourself after such trauma?

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