Visual Representation of Women and Girls in Eastern Congo

                                                                                             by Christina Mallie

Colors of Connection’s projects are public by nature and we
work to produce visual imagery that is created by under-represented groups.  This presents an opportunity for fresh portrayals
of subjects and the chance to shift perceptions, opinions and behavior of the
public.   As we proceed with the Courage in Congo
project, I’m compelled to think about the public imagery that already exists on
the issue of women’s rights in the region of Eastern Congo and its impact on the
women and girls who live here.

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Advertisement for beauty products with the message “Your beauty determines your success in life” Commercial Avenue, Goma DRC.  Christina Mallie/Colors of Connection

From what I’ve seen so far in Goma, there
are three types of public imagery of women and girls that seem to predominate.  The first is more typically what I’ve seen in
other places where I’ve lived: the sexual objectification of women for
advertisement purposes.   The second type shows women as idealized
nurturing caretaker of the home and family, the mother figure.  

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Handprinted advertisement for Maggi flavoring with the message “Maggi: it’s the ingredient that we put in our pondu” (pondu a popular Congolese dish made from manioc leaves) Goma DRC.  Christina Mallie/Colors of Connection 

In Goma, I find these two types of
advertisements are typically done in low-tech mediums such as mural paintings that
decorate commercial streets, and hand-painted signboards popular at the three
main roundabouts.  On the higher tech end
of advertising there are big billboards and one notable live moving advertising
screen which attracts a nighttime audience of moto taxi drivers and their
passengers; perhaps content to be entertained by the same message again and
again.  

The third type of imagery that seems unique to this
region – and potentially the city of Goma – are the numerous images that
contain messages against sexual violence.
Some of them are explicitly violent, with images of women and girls in
the act of being raped.   It has been interesting as well as shocking
for me to get used to this second kind of imagery as a norm, a part of everyday
life here.   It troubles me that in these
messages the women and girls are often portrayed as victims as opposed to
survivors, powerless as opposed to empowered, and that violence permeates the
imagery.

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Heal Africa Mural picturing a woman after being raped and the perpetrator going to prison with the message “A rapist deserves 20 years in prison” Goma, DRC.  Christina Mallie/Colors of Connection 

I’m interested to learn how women and girls are impacted
by these images of themselves being subjected to sexual violence?  Is there a risk of triggering past
experiences of trauma if a survivor of rape sees these images?  What purpose are these images supposed to serve?  In a place that suffers from endemic conflict,
does it make sense to portray violence so extensively?  Is there a risk that violence against women
becomes normalized through the commonplace visual display of violence against
women?  

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Heal Africa Mural, with the message “Rape” Goma, D.R.C.  Courtesy of Rebecca Cech

In discussions with Rebecca Cech about her
dissertation and work on this topic area, she highlighted that the ways in
which power – and violence as power – are portrayed are particularly
interesting points of analysis.  For
example in the image below, in a show of solidarity against rape, the community
is literally portrayed to be using violence as a means to end the violent by
nature act of rape – weaponry include hammers, guns, and bows and arrows!   Another example of this type of imagery in Goma that portrays
violence and violence being committed against women is a sculpture of
monumental size called “La Femme Profané”.
It’s a particularly interesting piece of work as I’ve been able get a
background story on the motivations of the artist, as well as feedback on its impact
on women and girls.  The sculpture is the
centerpiece of a campus quad in a high school, created in 2008 by the artist
Eugene Sanyambo an art teacher at the school and a native of Eastern
Congo.    

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La Femme Profané  ULPGL
secondary school, Goma, DRC by Eugene Sanyambo,
Photo courtesy of Rebecca Cech

In an interview with Rebecca Cech, Sanyambo explained the symbolism of the
statue that is meant, in short, to depict the suffering of innocent people in
the DRC conflict (represented by the woman) and the abuse of power that has
caused the conflict (represented by the soldier’s boots on her body).  From what I understand, Sanyambo intended to
speak about a larger issue of the conflict, yet when I read the sculpture in
its literal form, it is unavoidable to see an image of sexual violence against
women.  Others I’ve spoken to about the
statue share the same impression.  I’ve
heard from a colleague who is troubled by this statue, that each year, as a new
group of high school students arrive, the symbolic meaning of the statue has to
be re-explained as it’s symbolic meaning is not understood.  This same colleague related to me that a
phrase was added to the bottom of the statue in French translated as “Never
again in DRC” to better communicate that the sculpture does not condone violence
against women.  

The colleague I spoke with also explained that one female high-school
student stopped attending classes in her last year and didn’t graduate.  After some probing from a psychologist who
visited her at her home, it was discovered that she felt too traumatized to
enter the quad with the statue there.  For
her, the statue elicited memories of a traumatic experience with her ex-boyfriend.  It seems that the statue had the effect of re-traumatizing
her each time she went to school. Curiously, despite this negative impact the
statue remains.  It doesn’t make sense to
me why this type of statue and its message are considered to be appropriate or relevant
for a high school setting.  I wonder how
aware the school administration and teachers are of the risks of re-traumatization?   What
lessons does the school think the statue is teaching the students?  I imagine that this sculpture could only come
to exist in a place like Goma, where imagery showing violence against women
becomes common enough for it to be considered “normal” for an artist to put a
statue like this in the middle of a high school quad.    

It is important to consider the purpose these images against
sexual violence serve and why they are so prevalent here.   Rebecca
Cech points out in her dissertation, Advocacy
Literature Sans Frontiers:  African Warscapes,
International Community, and Popular Narratives for Emerging Human Rights Norms

that the publicizing of sexual violence in the region has been successful in
drawing attention to the abuses women suffer in war-time in Eastern Congo, pushing
forward legislation to criminalize rape in DRC, and encouraging programs that
support victims of SGBV (Cech, 120).   However, in the process of meeting these
important objectives, it seems to me that the telling and retelling of sexual
violence in Eastern Congo has left in its wake an entrenched representation of
women and girls in eastern Congo as victims and a landscape scattered with
violent and disturbing imagery.  I wonder
how much it might also have the effect of normalizing violence against women?  

Undoubtedly raising awareness about SGBV without
disempowering women is a challenging job. Representing any group who is victimized
is difficult to do while preserving their identity as multidimensional human
beings with agency, power and worth.  It
is hard to draw attention to an adverse issue without disempowering the subject
in the process.    Despite
the challenge I think it’s an important goal to have. It seems that what’s
missing in the current images on women and girls is the depiction of solutions
that empower women and girls – images that instruct and encourage women, girls
and the community on what some of the roots causes are and what they can do to
change the broader situation.  

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Participants ready to answer a question during class at
CAMME, Goma DRC.  Pamela Tulizo
Kamale/Colors of Connection

I’m eager to discover what our group of teenage girls and
community leaders will come up with to represent women’s and girls issues in a
fresh and new way.  

Since the first day of our classes with the girls I’ve been impressed
to meet a roomful of young people eager to express themselves and their
opinions, laughing and dancing, and in all ways giving me an impression of
their strength, ability, and capacity – definitely not one of the current
portrayals of women and girls in the public imagery that I’ve been seeing
around town.

Stay tuned for an update on this subject.  The girl participants and community leaders
will be criticizing existing imagery on women and sexual and gender-based violence in the
region and creating new imagery soon!

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