Why Hillary Clinton should be careful using “rape” and “mark of shame” in the same sentence

Like Alanna, I too am glad to see Secretary of State Clinton focusing on the pandemic of rape in eastern DR Congo. I’m also glad, to judge from the flurry of media reports coming out of Goma and Kinshasa, that her visit and her attention are having some effect. And naturally, I’m glad that she’s calling for an end to impunity — for real “arrests and prosecutions and punishment” — for perpetrators of this crime (easier said than done, unfortunately, given its ubiquity among all sides of the conflict).

But what also struck me from Clinton’s comments was this snippet highlighted by FP’s Madam Secretary blog:

“The entire society needs to be speaking out against this…It should be a mark of shame anywhere, in any country. I hope that that will become a real cause here in Kinshasa that will sweep across the country.”

She’s right, of course, and her purpose is to upend the lamentable status quo, in which rape is rampant and unchallenged. And maybe there’s a sort of power in reversing the meaning of the phrase “mark of shame,” using it to signify the failure to combat rape, rather than rape itself, as so often occurs in places like Congo where what should be a war crime is seen as a stigma. But “mark of shame,” I think, falls too close to this line; in a culture in which the entrenched response to rape remains shame and ostracization — or even laughter and mockery — it’s difficult to use that emotion to galvanize a vigorous and difficult campaign to change not just a country’s punitive structures, but a society’s very mores.