Global Policy Forum

Activists Slam World's ‘Grotesque Indifference’ to DRC


By Stephen Leahy

December 17, 2008

Reviewing the efforts of the acclaimed US playwright Eve Ensler and the former UN special envoy for AIDS in Africa Stephen Lewis to sustain international attention on the DRC crisis, Stephen Leahy highlights the centrality of women and girls' rights in the ongoing conflict in the east of the country.

International lust for the enormous mineral and resource riches of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) abetted by international indifference has turned much of country into a colossal ‘rape mine' where more than 300,000 women and girls have been brutalised, activists say. ‘Rape is being used as a deliberate tool to control people and territory,' said Eve Ensler, a celebrated US playwright and founder of V-Day, a global movement in 120 countries to end violence against women and girls. ‘The rapes are systematic, horrific and often involve bands of rebels infected with HIV/AIDS,' Ensler, who recently returned from the DRC, told the Inter Press Service (IPS).

Ensler was in Toronto to help raise funds for the Panzi hospital in the DRC's South Kivu province where many rape victims are brought. Once a maternity hospital, Panzi hospital now provides free care and refuge to 3,500 victims of sexual violence each year. Denis Mukwege leads a team of six surgeons who routinely work 18-hour days to repair women's extensive internal injuries. Hundreds of women and children were raped yesterday, and hundreds more will be today. This is an economic war that uses terror as its main weapon to ensure warlords and their bands control regions where international companies mine for valuable metals like tin, silver and coltan, or extract lumber and diamonds, Ensler said.

Coltan is a rare and extremely valuable metal used in cell phones, DVD players, computers, digital cameras, video games, vehicle air bags, and more. It has long been implicated as both the source of funding and primary cause of the ongoing conflict and extraordinary violence against women. ‘A friend mapped the locations of the mass rapes in the DRC and they correspond to coltan mining regions,' she said. This ‘blood coltan' – akin to blood diamonds – generates billions of dollars of sales every year for electronics manufacturers in rich countries and brings hundreds of millions of dollars to rebels and others who control the coltan-producing regions. Coltan is also produced in other countries, and the DRC's ‘blood coltan' is often transported to those countries to give it a sheen of conflict-free provenance.

Over five million people have been killed in the ongoing war following the overthrow of the dictator Mobutu Sese Seko in 1997. The United Nations' largest-ever peacekeeping force of 17,000 has been in the DRC since 2000. However, it is a vast country the size of Western Europe, and with few roads. Last 22 January, rebel groups signed a peace treaty with an ineffective DRC government accused of corruption and complicit in the rape of women. Despite the treaty, thousands of women and young girls in the eastern Congo have been raped this year in the region that borders Rwanda and Uganda and where coltan and other minerals are found. Large-scale fighting resumed in July, forcing hundreds of thousands to flee their homes.

‘The failure of the international community has created a catastrophe in the DRC,' said Stephen Lewis, former UN special envoy for AIDS in Africa and founder of the Stephen Lewis Foundation, a charity that supports 300 grassroots projects in Africa. Headquartered in Toronto, the foundation is a financial supporter of the Panzi hospital. Last June, the UN Security Council, chaired by US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, passed Security Council Resolution 1820 condemning the use of sexual violence against women and girls in conflict and post-conflict situations. Lewis told IPS that while the resolution was an unprecedented agreement by the world community, ‘not a thing has happened since then. It is as if the world exalted in the fine words of the resolution and then let its intent die.'

He is also critical of the UN secretary-general's special envoy to the region, Olusegun Obasanjo, the former president of Nigeria, who is meeting rebel and government leaders but who has not met with the women of the Congo. Women must be brought to the table, Lewis said. They were also excluded during the previous peace negotiations. ‘We have to stop the raping or the war will never end,' he said. The UN Security Council recently voted to send an extra 3,000 peacekeepers to eastern Congo to help protect civilians affected by the fighting. By most accounts, that effort will fall far short. ‘With 50,000 UN peacekeepers, the women of the DRC could be protected,' said Lewis.

Three years ago, the global community agreed it has a responsibility to protect people when a government is unable or unwilling to protect its own citizens from the worst violations of human rights. However, there has been widespread failure to live up to that commitment, which Lewis characterises as ‘an appalling and grotesque indifference by the world community'. Lewis, a Canadian, is especially outraged that Canada – which championed the ‘responsibility to protect' principle – has been ‘completely and utterly silent on the DRC'. He was hopeful that the present Canadian government modelled on the Bush neo-conservative administration would be brought down in the 2008 election and that a centre-left coalition government would bring a strong Canadian voice in support of ending the violence against women in the DRC. The new US government headed by President-Elect Barack Obama could also be a very powerful force for change. ‘I see a real gleam of light at last,' said Lewis. The violence and conflict in the DRC will not be easy to resolve, but is no harder than some of the other global issues like HIV/AIDS, he said.

Both Lewis and Ensler have been involved in efforts in the DRC to change things for women. Some 90 forums were held in the eastern Congo last September where women spoke out about the violence and rape. ‘No one talks about rape, there is a social stigma where the victims are shunned,' said Ensler. A new village for rape victims Ensler calls the ‘City of Joy' is being built near the Panzi Hospital. She envisions it as leadership centre where rape survivors support and learn from each other, and then teach others that the larger community is responsible for rape, not the women. ‘The Congo's greatest resource is its brilliant and resilient women and girls,' she said. ‘With a little international support, these generous and amazing women can turn this horrific situation around.'

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