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In Africa, reporters face ethical questions when reporting on rape

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Pete Muller/AP

(Read caption) Congolese soldiers in green uniforms board a police truck after receiving their sentences in a mass rape trail in the town of Baraka, Democratic Republic of Congo on Feb. 21. Ten of 11 accused solders were found guilty of crimes against humanity including Lt. Col. Mutuare Daniel Kibibi, top center in green, who was sentenced to twenty years in prison.

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But first, a quick news update: A Congolese colonel is going to jail for his sex crimes. It's the first such conviction – and about time. Two thousand people attended the verdict and sentencing, and 49 women had braved testifying against him in court, according to the BBC. I applaud you all.

If you're a regular reader, you've probably noticed by now that I write a lot about rape, in particular how journalists cover it. This surprises the me-of-five-years-ago. Then, I was in grad school with brilliant, fiery feminists who would have had a lot to say about this question if we'd ever had a class on it. I had virtually nothing to say about "that woman's issue," then... and sometimes felt like less of a woman (and certainly less of a feminist, if I even felt like that confusing f-word at all) because of my empty brain.

But in the intervening years, I've covered countries where you can't get away from rape -- or at least from its legacy. I spend a lot of time in post-conflict Africa, and in very nearly every country I've reported in, there's a local variation on the "rape as a weapon of war" story. I've found myself puzzling through awkward systems of journalism logic. In Sierra Leone, for a story about a new precedent in international humanitarian law, I talked for hours with women who were gang-raped, or once-raped, or raped by the same man with different objects, and any other variation you can imagine. I'd been told this topic was sensitive, even urged by well-meaning NGO folks not to ask about it. But as soon as I had the introduction out of my mouth -- "I'm a journalist writing about forced marriage during the war" – they interrupted me to start telling their stories. I was young, confused, overwhelmed, but slowly, I realized these were women who hadn't been heard before.

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