In Congo, "A Dead Rat Is Worth More Than the Body of a Woman"

Sexual violence against women in the African nation has become an "incredibly inexpensive tool for controlling and eviscerating the population," says Eve Ensler, founder of the advocacy group V-Day.

Sexual violence against women occurs everywhere in the world, yet a strife-torn pocket of the Democratic Republic of Congo has recently become a global focal point for such attacks as incidents of rape, violence and brutality have skyrocketed.

The scale of sexual violence in the Congo right now is the worst in the world. There were more than 15,000 rapes recorded in the Congo in the past year, according to the head of the U.N. peacekeeping mission there. In a four-day period at the end of July alone, 303 civilians were reportedly raped in 13 villages along the eastern border. In the province of South Kivu local health centers report that an average of 40 women are raped daily, according to the U.N.’s 2010 State of World Population Report.

Much of the violence has occurred in and around mining communities, where rebel groups and government troops clash for control of lucrative gold and coltan deposits.

Eve Ensler, author of "The Vagina Monologues" and founder of the advocacy group V-Day, recently toured the region, speaking with women about the attacks. She told Big Think that rape and brutality have become tools of war that are now used to destroy and scatter communities from around these mines. The brutality is an “incredibly inexpensive tool for controlling and eviscerating the population,” she says.  The result, says Ensler, is a systematic pogrom against women to destroy the Congolese communities so that rebel groups and outsiders from Rwanda, Burundi and Uganda can take over the mines.

“I think the Congo has always been a place where women have been severely repressed, where they have not had access or a realization of their rights,” says Ensler. “This desecration on top of this has further impeded women’s confidence.”

What becomes apparent about Congo, as well as about such attacks everywhere, is that the sexual violence isn’t about sex, but rather is about power. “Sexual violence is there for one thing and one thing alone, which is to keep patriarchy in place,” says Ensler. Without such violence, she says, “there would be no threat to women, no way of controlling women, and no way of undermining women.”

Ensler also points out that while each act of violence has unique qualities, there are similar undercurrents common to all brutality against women. “The variation of the violence changes from place to place,” she says, “but the mechanism and the reason for it is the same.”

The U.N. has attempted to gain ground in the region and stop the violence, but its gains have been slow. Margot Wallström, the U.N.'s Special Representative on Sexual Violence and Conflict, visited the Congo in October and came away with the conclusion that such rampant sexual violence "brutalizes the whole society."  Rape destroys communities by stigmatizing the victim, she says, and then becomes a legacy issue as the following generation of young men and boys come to believe that such acts are natural.

As the destruction ripples from each individual through the whole society, it starves opportunity at each stage.  Women are, in many ways, the backbone of the Congolese economy and society, says Wallström.  Since the violence began, the economic and social structures framed by women, from familial roles to labor, have been fractured.  In the fight to control resources and their wealth, the violence has hobbled economic development in the country. 

Opportunity fails as well on the individual level.  Drawing from work by the U.N. and from stories heard during her visit, Wallström compares the ongoing sexual violence to killing a person without taking their life. Often, she says, when a woman has been raped she is rejected by her husband and family and she is marginalized and stigmatized without income or resource.

"A dead rat is worth more than the body of a woman," one victim told Wallström.

During her visit, Wallström asked a Congolese woman what "normal" would be if she had not been brutalized. "She didn’t seem to understand the question," Wallström says. "She said that the life of the woman is to work. … to give birth to children and then to sort of please your husband and do whatever he tells you sexually at night. That’s the life of a woman. And there was sort of no joy, no love, no concept of what we would think was a dignified life."

Even amid such unconscionable violence, Ensler believes the future of Congo is found in its women. Through her organization’s work she sees “more women coming into their power, more women coming into their voice, more women believing they have a right to be.” If current gains are sustained and many new gains made, Ensler says, “the women in Congo in the next five years will indeed rise up, and will indeed take over, and will indeed come into a voice of power.”

More Resources

Eve Ensler's V-Day Congo Campaign 

U.N. State of the World Population 2010: From Conflict and Crisis to Renewal: Generations of Change. 

*Photographs by Myriam Asmani/MONUSCO

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The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

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