Silencing Women: Sofi Oksanen on Sexual Violence

by    /  May 6, 2010  / 6 Comments

On April 28 2010, largely under the radar of the national media, the Conflict Mineral Trade Act passed out of the Foreign Affairs Committee, clearing it for a full House vote.

This obscure bill regulates the disclosure practices of companies who make electronic devices that contain tin, tungsten, tantalite, and gold.

These minerals end up in our cell phones and computers, but they also fund the war in Congo—the deadliest conflict since World War II. To date, it has claimed an estimated 5.4 million lives.

This conflict is marked by the widespread use of sexual violence as a military tactic by the rebel factions. By engaging in systematic rape, they attempt to destroy and silence communities.

“There are experiences that don’t have language,” said Sofi Oksanen in regards to sexual violence. Oksanen is a Finnish-Estonian writer who visited in Sampsonia Way in April to give a reading sponsored by City of Asylum/Pittsburgh in partnership with PEN/America. For her, literature is a powerful way to create compassion because we identify more readily with single characters than with numbers and statistics.

In her novel Purge, women who survived sexual violence are unable to verbalize their experience, but their stories remained enmeshed in their bodies. Locked in silence, they recognize shared experience in the bowed heads and averted eyes of other abused women.

On May 1, The New York Times ran a photo of a woman in the Congo, her face swaddled in bandages after the Lord’s Resistance Army sliced off her lips.

The photo painfully concretizes how violence silences women while imprinting trauma on their bodies.

“The world must speak up [about what is happening in Congo],” said activist Sylvie Maunga Mbanga. “Otherwise, the silence is complicity.”

Mbanga has been working with the Enough Project’s RAISE Hope for Congo campaign.

Other people who are telling the story of the violence in Congo include Kambale Musavuli, an activist who produces a weekly podcast on the situation in Congo; Lisa Shannon whose book A Thousand Sisters documents her work with the survivors of sexual violence; and Pulitzer-Prize winning writer Alice Walker has been working with Women for Women International, an organization that helps women survivors of war.

Like many of the activists working in the Congo, Oksanen is committed to telling the stories of the survivors of sexual violence.

“Oral history is important to me,” she said. “In oral history, the expression isn’t direct. But in writing it down, it gains a kind of directness and importance.”

READ Elizabeth’s full interview with Oksanen.

Click here for Elizabeth’s bio

About the Author

Elizabeth Hoover earned her MFA in Creative Writing from Indiana University, where she received a Project on African Expressive Traditions grant and the Won-Joon Yon Scholarship for Racial Tolerance. She has written for American Heritage, Life, and Poets and Writers. Her criticism has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the Philadelphia Inquirer, and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. She has published poetry in The Adirondack Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, and the Atlanta Review. Recently, New Letters nominated her for a Pushcart Prize. Hoover is a former associate editor at Sampsonia Way.

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  • Amy

    I look forward to reading the full interview. Boycott Israel, Arizona… but I bet nobody’s willing to give up their Crackberry or iPhone to support de-funding the war in the Congo (if that’d even be the best strategy). The Congo is too far away, this issue seems too diffuse, and Congolese women lack a powerful political lobbying arm in the U.S.

  • admin


    Thanks for the comment. I agree that most people aren’t willing to give up the things that they deem necessary in their lives to help the plight of others. I believe many people feel removed from conflicts in the Congo and elsewhere because of the distance and sometimes because of a lack of understanding.

  • Phinehas

    I liked ‘concretizes’.

  • Christian Louboutin

    Great article Thank

    you so much!

  • You have done it once again! Incredible post.

  • Juliette Meade

    If I had a dime for each time I came to! Superb read.