Congolese Women and Girls Suffering the Insufferable

While in the eastern Congo last summer, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stated, “With respect to companies that are responsible for what are now being called conflict minerals, I think the international community must start looking at steps we can take to try to prevent the mineral wealth from the DRC ending up in the hands of those who fund the violence here.”

In relation, the Democratic Republic of Congo’s UN supported armed assault against rebels in the eastern Congo has promoted widespread death, rape and other forms of brutality. Indeed, the decade long war has claimed at least 5.4 million lives — the most in any conflict since WWII. At the same time, hundreds of thousands of women and girls, including babies, have suffered rapes and sexual mutilation, often with weapons and tools used in the process. Further, it is thought that, in eastern portions of the Congo, up to seventy percent of Congolese women, along with children of all ages, have been sexually attacked, according to the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative, a research center at Harvard University.

Moreover, some relief workers have estimated that up to twenty percent of new rapes have been instigated by police and civilians in urban rather than rural areas in that a culture of violence has set into much of the nation due to the long, drawn out conflict. At the same time, the attacks are so extremely violent that they have been described as sexual terrorism by medical workers at the Panzi Hospital in Bukavu at which thousands of survivors have been treated each year.

Overall, it has emerged that all major groups involved in the warfare have committed these and other serious war crimes, including looting peasants, purposefully destroying homes and forcing the mass dislocations of more than a million terrorized people from their neighborhoods. On account, countless families and whole communities have been forced to live with constant fear, repeated migrations and insurmountable social turmoil.

In a country with an annual income of $110 per capita and a life expectancy rate of 54.4 years, life is difficult enough as it is. However, individuals on the run can’t even have the assurance of this modest sum to support existence. As a result, massive food, medical and displacement aid is needed in the country at the very time that it is most dangerous to be there as an aid worker. Simultaneously, a shortage of donations negatively impact the quality of care delivered by various assistance organizations, including U.N. sponsored relief programs.

Meanwhile, a rape-friendly culture encourages leniency towards rapists and ostracism towards victims regardless of their ages. Indeed, wounded sufferers are generally shunned by their spouses, other family members and former friends, particularly so if they have any children that resulted from periods of long term bondage accompanied by repeated rapes.

Simultaneously, assailants rarely receive proper trials. Therefore, the lack of punishment has increasingly emboldened Congolese men to find pleasure through physically violating women and children on a routine basis. Consequently, the number of assaults on women and children are increasing and spreading into new regions so as to include ever new groups, such as the Pigmies.

Even as the International Criminal Tribunal recognizes rape as a crime of genocide under international law, there is little by way of meaningful deterrence to the escalating aggression. In relation, this “pandemic of sexual violence,” indicates Stephen Lewis, the former United Nations special envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa, is “obscene,” “insanely savage,” and is nothing short of “femicide.”

Despite that social stigma is prevalent, the abandoned women and girls, of whom some are pictured at Congo/Women, do sometimes receive substantial help. For example, it comes from groups like SOS AIDS, an organization that works with other relief agencies to get in touch with rural survivors so as to take them to treatment centers for psychological counseling and medical support.

The assistance often includes the successful repair of fistulas, debilitating ruptures of the urinary-genital tract that leave females incontinent and prone to infections for life. The helpers, also, try to provide housing, including for those in need of anti-retroviral and other drug treatments due to the attackers having infected their victims with assorted serious diseases. (The HIV prevalence includes approximately 4.2 percent of the population.) Meanwhile, the high number of injured women and girls makes it impossible to treat them all, aside from the fact that the majority of the assaults, apparently, go unreported.

Thankfully, there are a number of dedicated groups like SOS AIDS taking a stand for justice and human welfare even when it is dangerous for their staff to do so. Tragically, others try to increase the very same kinds of turmoil SOS AIDS is striving to remedy. They are doing so in order to gain control of four main minerals: tin, tantalum, tungsten, and gold that garner an estimated $180 million in revenues each year.

The main reason that these minerals are in such high demand is because they are critical in the fabrication of digital cameras, laptops, cell phones, portable musical devices and video games. Yet, some of these battlefield minerals are not widely found over much of the world. Therefore, there is great competition for them in the Congo and some individuals will stop at nothing to get them.

All considered, people interested in supporting the necessary reforms in this war torn land can phone or write letters to Congressional representatives to urge them to ratify the Congo Conflict Minerals Act (S. 891) and the Conflict Minerals Trade Act (H.R. 4128), which are currently undergoing legislative review. They can, also, sign petitions directed to members of Congress (Senate bill, House bill). Additionally, they can contact their respective mobile phone manufacturers to indicate that they want the companies to ensure that cell phones are only made from certified conflict-free materials.

In relation, Brian McAfee, the co-author of this report, indicated, “The women and girls of the Congo are our sisters and daughters in the larger sense of our all being part of one human family. Therefore, our love and concern for them, as it would be for any other cherished human being, must be present. In relation, I sort of decided to adopt the rest of the world as my family due to my having been orphaned at an early age. Besides, Congolese people deserve unreserved justice and compassion as much as any other people do, as our common welfare is inexorably linked. In fact, only a huge outpouring of care from around the world will help to bring about the kind of changes so desperately needed in this tragically destroyed nation.”

Due to a shortage of funds and critical care supplies, the crisis in the Congo is inadequately addressed. Yet many charitable groups are striving their best to provide relief.

Thankfully, several of these agencies have excellent track records. A few of them that come highly recommended are the Women and Girls of the World, Stephen Lewis Foundation, SOS Medical Centres, and Women for Women International in the event that any support of their projects might like to be undertaken. As Margaret Mead suggested, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

By Emily Spence and Brian McAfee

Emily Spence and Brian McAfee are authors living respectively in Massachusetts and Michigan. They have spent many years involved in human rights, environmental and social services efforts. They can be contacted at brimac6@hotmail.com.

Published by the LA Progressive on January 11, 2010
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