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How can we explain the rape epidemic in Congo?

For the last decade and a half, the Democratic Republic of the Congo has spawned unfathomable statistics. First, we learned that more people had died in conflict there than in all of World War II -- a devastating number in a country that most people couldn't locate on a map. Today's news that between 1.69 and 1.8 million women there will be raped in their lifetimes -- the equivalent of 410,000 a year and 48 every hour -- feels even more viscerally upsetting. You can't help feeling outraged when you read the numbers, published today in the American Journal of Public Health. How can we stand for this -- why isn't more being done?

But the more alarming question, perhaps, isn't why we aren't doing something about this; it's the fact that many people have tried, and failed. Despite democratic elections, a U.N. peacekeeping mission, millions of dollars of aid, and women's groups on the ground that have fought back with undaunted courage, these latest figures suggest that the epidemic of rape is getting worse, not better. Something isn't working. Why is sexual violence so persistent?

For years, political scientists and journalists looking at conflict (in Congo and elsewhere) have argued that sexual violence is a political tool of warfare. Women are raped as militias sweep across territory, laying stake to their claims and shaming the men whose wives are assaulted this way. It's a means of symbolic conquer.

Here's a more alarming thought, however: What if rape has actually become systemic -- not a brutal act of conquest so much as a systemic, even rational occurrence in a system that has been built upon violence? In her recent book The Trouble with the Congo, Séverine Autesserre mentions this explanation: that rape has been persistent in the country at least since Belgian colonial rule pillaged the country and instilled a style of government so extractive as to doom Congo to centuries of fighting back against its legacy. The Congolese government's reaction, reported on BBC radio today, seemed to concur with that explanation: There was no "increase' in rapes," it said. It's just that the way they are reported has gotten better. Rape, in other words, is persistent.

Jason Stearns, whose book Dancing in the Glory of Monsters is perhaps the best account of the most recent conflict in the Congo, also argues that the violence, including rape, has to fit within a framework of politics and history. "The principal actors are far from just savages, mindlessly killing and being killed" he writes, "but [they are] thinking breathing homo sapiens, whose actions, however abhorrent, are underpinned by political rationales and motives."

Yet another argument for the idea that rape is built into the system is another finding of the survey, which journalist Jina Moore points out is the real new information: that sexual violence among married couples is extremely prevalent. This would seem to cast doubt on the idea of instrumental sexual violence as a means of waging war. Or at least that's not the only explanation.

To answer that "the system" is to blame is both comforting and disconcerting. We can reassure ourselves that humanity is not so cruel as to captivate millions of men to rape simply out of a fit of passion. And yet something that has been built by mankind -- the body politic that is the Congo -- is that cruel. If any one of us were thrown into that system, we would behave the same. And fixing it isn't an act of conversion so much as a complete destruction of the past.

In other words, to end rape would mean to rewrite the system that has grown up over decades in the Congo, an idea made all the more daunting by the fact that very few people can claim to have an understanding of what that even means. Until then, the security of Congo's women is tied to the fate of the country itself. A reminder of the political stakes in an election year for the Congo.

MARC HOFFER/AFP/Getty Images

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