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Congo’s Women on the Front Lines of a War for Wealth

7 July 2010 No Comment

June 30th marked the Democratic Republic of Congo’s 50th anniversary of independence from Belgium. Violence continues to torment the country as this historical milestone is celebrated.

Sylvie Maunga Photo Credit: Institute for Peace and Justice

Sylvie Maunga
Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC)

“The epidemic of sexual violence in Congo is a humiliation to all humanity, to our dignity and our values. The world must speak up and act now to end mass atrocities.”

The Congolese conflict is considered the worst humanitarian crisis in the world, and the deadliest since World War II. Since 1998, more than six million people have died as a result of this war. Over two million people have been forced to flee their homes, and some 400,000 Congolese have sought refuge in neighboring countries. Hundreds of thousands of women and girls have been kidnapped, raped, and tortured.

The atrocious way that sexual violence is used in Congo is often indescribable. Women and even children are being attacked by multiple men, often in public and in front of their husbands, kids, and neighbors. After the rape, the perpetrator sometimes fires his gun into the woman’s vagina.

The purpose is not just to abuse women, but also to destroy the Congolese community, and to traumatize and humiliate people. Armed groups use rape to force civilians to leave mining areas so they can exploit the illicit but lucrative trade in minerals. Specifically, armed groups are profiting from the mineral “coltan” (or tantalum), as well as gold and tin, which each of us rely on daily to power our electronic devices. The DR Congo is rich with mineral deposits, but it’s the armed groups, not the Congolese people, who benefit from this wealth.

We all have a responsibility to act, in every way we can.

During my experience working with survivors of sexual violence in eastern Congo as a coordinator for the Interchurch Organization for Development Cooperation, I lived and breathed the suffering of women. One woman told me that all in the same day she was raped in front of her husband and kids, impregnated, and infected with HIV. How is it possible?

Sylvie Maunga Photo Credit: Institute for Peace and Justice

I was unable to respond to all of the women’s needs. Even with my tools and holistic approach, including psychological assistance, medical assistance, economic and legal resources, I couldn’t clean away their horrible stories. And I couldn’t give them what they really wanted: The only thing they asked for was peace.

To help women in Congo, the world needs to address the causes of the violence. Organizations would give women some money and help them reintegrate back into their villages, but after five months they come back and tell you that the rebellion has passed through their village, robbed them and raped them again. Justice was usually unattainable due to corruption.

More than 60% of intervention efforts are focused on the consequences of the war and violence. Yet to truly give the women what they want – peace – then we need to address the structural causes of the violence.

The Congolese government has an obligation to protect its citizens, yet during the last six years there has been no state authority in Congo. Local and foreign rebel groups still operate in the East. Even worse, many of the perpetrators of these atrocities have been integrated into the national army without any accountability for past abuses. At the same time, the United Nations peacekeeping mission continues to support the “Congolese” army, and the United States is training a number of Congolese troops through Africom.

The bottom line: any intervention must “do no harm” and ensure that violence against women is prevented at all costs.

The Obama Administration has undertaken several initiatives, including a grant of $17 million to address sexual violence. But even more important will be the US government’s long-term plan to end the war. The Obama Administration should make sure that the Congolese government is addressing the people’s needs, implementing democracy, and fostering accountability by training a professional army and ending political corruption. The Obama Administration should also press the Congolese government to implement the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325 by ensuring the equal and full participation of Congolese women as active agents in peace and security.

The epidemic of sexual violence in Congo is a humiliation to all humanity, to our dignity and our values. The world must speak up and act now to end mass atrocities. Otherwise, the silence is complicity.

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Reprinted with author’s permission. Original post written in coordination with the Enough Project’s RAISE Hope for Congo campaign.

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