Illuminating the Unseen: Bringing Awareness to War-Rape and Survivors

By: Georgia Pettygrove

In Ruined‘s introduction, Kate Whoriskey describes how “[theater] has an incredible capacity for illuminating the unseen, reshaping history, bringing out empathy and providing social commentary.” As the Second Congo Civil War continued in The Democratic Republic of the Congo, Lynn Nottage traveled to East Africa to write Ruined and, in the process, bring attention to the war’s unseen and unacknowledged survivors of sexual violence. 

Since the Second Congo Civil War began, hundreds of thousands of women had become victims of sexual violence. Disturbed by the lack of press and attention those victims were receiving, Nottage interviewed war refugees in Uganda and gathered countless personal and painful stories. While reflecting on her experiences in Uganda, Nottage wrote: “One by one, through tears and in voices just above a whisper, they recounted raw, revealing stories of sexual abuse and torture at the hands of both rebel soldiers and government militias. The word rape was a painful refrain, repeated so often it made me physically sick. By the end of the interviews I realized that a war was being fought over the bodies of women. Rape was being used as a weapon to punish and destroy communities. In listening to their narratives I came to terms with the extent to which their bodies had become battlefields.”

In 2008, the United Nations declared rape a weapon of war. Due to the large and disturbing amount of sexual violence within the Second Congo Civil War, The Democratic Republic of the Congo was named the Rape Capital of the World. As shown by the experiences of the women in Ruined, the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war can harm an individual and a community in a way few other weapons can. The stigma associated with rape can break families apart, as many victims often become ostracized by their loved ones and communities. In Ruined, Salima was turned away from her family and her husband, Fortune, after she was captured and raped by Lendu soldiers. Her family claimed she “dishonored” them, shifted the blame of her assault on to her, and argued that she “tempted” the soldiers and that it was her fault. The aftermath of Salima’s horrific experience shows how, in the midst of war, rape is not solely about sex. Rather, it is also a way to strategically divide and terrorize communities in order to show power and control. As Lynn Nottage remarked in her reflection of her experiences in Uganda, women like Salima’s bodies became battlegrounds on which the Second Congo Civil War was fought. 

Stories like Salima’s and the other women at Mama Nadi’s bar are not uncommon; war-rape has existed as long as warfare has. Since its release in 2009, Ruined has gained the attention of the United Nations and the United States Senate and brought significant awareness to the topic of war-related sexual violence and its strong and courageous survivors. Productions like Ruined are essential for initiating and encouraging discussion around important issues and, as Kate Whoriskey writes, they are essential in order to “activate change, heal a bit of the horror, restore hope and give voice to the silent and unseen.”

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