This article is cross-posted at the Association for Women’s Rights in Development (AWID) website.
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On September 28, 2009, rapes and killings of hundreds of anti-dictator protestors in broad daylight in Conakry brought the world’s attention to the small West African nation of Guinea. Observers there noted that the use of gang rapes as a strategy to quell political uprising was new and unusual in this predominantly Muslim nation – but so was the way news of the rapes traveled: via images transmitted through mobile phones.
Protestors Terrorized in Broad Daylight
On September 28, 2009, self-proclaimed president Captain Moussa Dadis Camara’s troops raped and murdered at least 157 political demonstrators in Conakry, Guinea. Thousands of people had gathered in a public sports stadium to speak out against Camara’s decision to stand again in upcoming presidential elections. One observer – a longtime agitator for social change in Guinea who wished to remain anonymous – viewed the mass participation in the protests as “a sign of maturity of the people of Guinea, who have suffered for 24 years from a military regime and who protest against another military regime with the same structure and the same people.”
According to research conducted by Human Rights Watch, “the vast majority of the victims were from the Peuhl ethnic group, which is almost exclusively Muslim, while most of the commanders at the stadium – and indeed key members of the ruling [party], including Camara, the coup leader – belong to ethnic groups from the southeastern forest region, which are largely Christian or animist.” Some survivors of the violence noted that troops used racial slurs while carrying out the rapes and killings.
Camara and his aides denied knowledge of or involvement in the rapes and killings – a claim that human rights advocates have been working diligently to refute. “There is no way the government can continue to imply the deaths were somehow accidental,” said Georgette Gagnon, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “This was clearly a premeditated attempt to silence opposition voices.” She continued, “Security forces surrounded and blockaded the stadium, then stormed in and fired at protesters in cold blood until they ran out of bullets. They carried out grisly gang rapes and murders of women in full sight of the commanders. That’s no accident.”
Today, killings and kidnappings of civilians continue, and the United States, African Union and European Union have all recently put sanctions on the ruling junta, imposing an arms embargo and economic sanctions against military leaders. On October 28, youth in Conakry went on a hunger strike, calling for political dialogue, an end to the violence and the arrest of those who attacked demonstrators. A statement issued by the coalition organizing the hunger strike noted that, among other things, the strike commemorated the atrocities particularly inflicted on women. The same day, the UN Security Council called on Guinean authorities to charge and try the perpetrators of last month’s deadly crackdown. Days later, the ruling junta boasted of a $7 billion deal with a Chinese company to build aviation and electricity infrastructure, snubbing sanctions from other ruling powers and calls for arrests.
Rapes a New Low Level of Cruelty
Rape has been used as a weapon in large-scale conflict in other parts of the world, including recently in Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo and during the genocide in Rwanda and the war in the Balkans in the 1990s. Yet, observers in Guinea noted that the use of rapes during the September 28 repression was new, unusual and striking in their country, particularly given the high number of citizens identifying as Muslim and presumably adhering to specific codes of conduct regarding gender relations.
Reports conveyed that, in broad daylight and open arenas, women were stripped naked. Men took turns gang raping them and penetrating their vaginas with gun barrels, knives and bayonets. Some reports noted that “soldiers fired guns into women’s private parts.” The actual number of those raped is difficult to discern, especially because many are afraid to come forward and report the rapes.
One women’s rights advocate in Guinea, speaking on the condition of anonymity, noted “frankly, the nature of rape inflicted on women of Guinea reflects the captain’s hatred of the people of Guinea. According to him and his men who he has recruited to commit these dirty acts, one must strike the more sensitive targets to put down the political leaders. Otherwise, no explanation can be given to the situation.”
She also explained that rape victims were slowly but surely receiving support: “after the events, the national coalition for the rights and citizenship of women decisively took action to find women victims in general, particularly those who were raped. The groups of investigators were deployed on the field in almost all districts of Conakry. Several organizations showed up as a result, and people of good will continue to contribute with material, health and financial aid to victims. The victims of rape unanimously benefit from support both at the national and international levels. Civil society organizers currently focus on setting up psycho-social aid clinics.”
Meanwhile, there is no word yet of legal prosecution of those who committed the rapes. The recent UN resolution (1888) mandating peacekeeping missions to protect women and girls from sexual violence in armed conflict holds some promise, but the problem in Guinea, as elsewhere in the world, is monitoring, implementation and enforcement.
Mobile Use a Positive Sign, With Some Questions Raised
Equally unusual is the way news of the rapes spread – via images transmitted through mobile phones. Given widespread government bullying of media in Guinea, it’s unclear to what extent the rapes would have been covered at all, let alone made it to headlines in international media. A women’s rights advocate in Guinea noted that “some lost their lives particularly because they took pictures; this is a new trend in Guinea. It is a first in our history. Guineans now have access to mobile phones and, despite their degrading nature, women are in the process of breaking silence and participating in circulating pictures.”
Since September 28, several websites, including one multilingual site called France 24, have been cataloging citizen journalist reports and photographs sent from Conakry. Unable to confirm the veracity of the claims and fearful of offensive nature of these images, syndicated news organizations have not published most of such photographs.
For example, a photograph of a half-clothed woman has generated active conversation on France 24, with some commenters calling into question the caption associated with the photograph. While the caption reads that a soldier is stripping a woman naked and humiliating her, some commenters argue that the soldier is, in fact, helping her put on her pants, or, alternately, that the whole scene was fabricated in the first place to confirm sensationalized reports of the rapes in Conakry.
Such a conversation illustrates both the potential and problematic nature of citizen journalism: people can participate as never before and contribute things that other media does not or cannot, but it is difficult to verify the veracity of such reports, there remains a potential that some can be fabricated and there is some risk to those who do the reporting. Globally, an understanding of these dimensions is nascent, with increasing examples to learn from.
For instance, this is not the first time mobile phones have been used to disseminate news of violence and repression. Mobile phones contributed to reporting sexual harrassment cases in Egypt in 2006 and happenings during the post-election period in Iran earlier this year. And long before mobile phones were capable of transmitting images, activists have been using them to organize protests, voters have been using them to report election fraud and petitioners have used them to flood policymakers and government officials with electronic signatures. Migrant domestic workers in Asia and the Gulf countries increasingly use text and image capabilities in cell phones as a lifeline to report abuse and signal for help.
In Guinea, this newest use of Information and Communications Technologies (ICTs) is the latest manifestation in recent efforts by civil society organizations to engage citizens in using participatory technologies, like radio and video, to raise awareness about violence, including gender-based violence. Civil society workers inside and outside the country, such as those from Alliance Guinea, are also using social networking sites such as Facebook to share news, post updates and rally support and funds for the situation there. As a continent, Africa is the fastest growing mobile phone market in the world, and activists there are hopeful that storytelling enabled through all these ICTs will encourage reporting, organizing and action.
In the meantime, the current situation in Guinea demands more than just reporting. In addition to sanctions and the suspension of military aid to the ruling junta, many there are calling for a return to constitutional order and the rapid organization of free and transparent elections, especially to stave off inter-factional fighting or a counter coup.
Masum Momaya is a South Asian American feminist and has been a women’s rights activist for 16 years. She recently worked as curator for the International Museum of Women and writes a weekly column for the Association for Women’s Rights in Development, focusing on timely happenings related to women’s rights worldwide. Masum has an honors bachelors degree from Stanford University in Public Policy and Feminist Studies and a masters in education and doctorate in Human Development, both from Harvard University.