D.C. was bustling last week with a series of events commemorating the 10th anniversary of Security Council Resolution 1325 on women, peace, and security. It is hard these days to think of those words "women-peace-security" and not have your mind flash to the conflict in eastern Congo.
Christine Karumba, Congo country director for Women for Women International, left me speechless Friday morning when she spoke of the five million people who have died in Congo—which is equivalent to the entire population of Bosnia being wiped out or the populations in up to 37 U.S. states. It knocked the wind out of me to think of how many have already died and how many more it will take to generate adequate an international response.
On Wednesday in her keynote address, Margot Wallström, the United Nations Special Representative to the Secretary General for Sexual Violence in Conflict, commented on the use of Congo’s conflict minerals in our electronics, and how “we all carry a piece of Congo in our pockets.” It was a few weeks ago when I first met SRSG Wallström at the Ihusi Hotel in Goma, the capital of the North Kivu province, a town lined with shiny new mansions called “tantalum houses” that overtly reveal the wealth of the beneficiaries of the illicit trade in conflict minerals. This trade is responsible for countless deaths and brutal violence, including, seemingly without remorse, rape.
SRSG Wallström spoke during her keynote address and later in the afternoon to the Enough Project about her visits to Walikale and the testimonies she heard from survivors of mass rape. She recognized this attack was deliberately orchestrated and well-planned, and while no one was killed, the community was ripped apart at its seams. Hundreds of women were brutally raped, families broken, and every man, woman, and child felt vulnerable and afraid. As a weapon of war, “rape is a tactic as easy as it is wicked,” Wallström said. “It is cheap, silent, and effective.”
Walikale is one of the many regions in eastern Congo abundant in the ores that produce conflict minerals—the 3T’s and gold—responsible for making our laptop screens light up and our cell phones vibrate. Armed groups profiting from the trade in conflict minerals use rape as a brutal tactic to disperse, intimidate, and control communities around the mine sites. Villages are burned, men are killed or taken as forced labor, children captured as child soldiers or orphaned, and women assaulted, stripped of their dignity, family, livelihood, and home.
SRSG Wallström reflected on how the Congolese state and the international community have failed Congo’s women: “We cannot wait for peace in order to bring peace to Congo’s women.”
And the peace that Congo’s women need is not a ceasefire that stops the spray of bullets but fails to address the persistence of rape, leaving women insecure in their homes or even in their beds next to their husbands after nightfall.
So how can we begin to string "women-peace-security" together in a context as dire as this one?
We can begin by reshaping our international response to rape by framing it as everyone’s issue rather than a “women’s issue.” While the physical assault may take place on a woman’s body, its intention as a weapon of war, as illustrated in eastern Congo, is to shred families and community relationships beyond the hope of repair. The stigma in the aftermath of such a violent campaign stems not from culture, tradition, or custom but from a deep sense of failure that as a community, as a father or as a husband, Congolese men had to watch the rapes they were not able to stop. The international response to this sexual violence has lacked an understanding of this community-wide trauma and the long and painful healing process that whole societies must undergo to mend their relationships and fully rehabilitate.
We can make sure that rape under no circumstances becomes viewed as “collateral damage” within a conflict situation. By speaking of it as such, we make acts of sexual violence in conflict seem normal, and we sentence women not only in the Congo but all over the world to the repeated threat of brutal assault and torture. This assessment frames rape as only a byproduct of conflict, which is not the case in eastern Congo. What we see happening there is no different to the military tactics of purposefully using land mines to maim or kill your opponents. Rape is in fact a highly calculated and deliberately executed tactic used to successfully intimidate and divide local communities.
We can amplify our voices as constituents and consumers to hold the U.S. government accountable for helping bring peace to Congo’s women through robust policies that shift economic incentives from violence and insecurity to transparency and stability in the multi-million dollar conflict minerals trade. This can be achieved when companies assume responsibility to trace and audit their supply chains and through the creation of a certification scheme that harmonizes regulations across regional governments. The U.S. must press the Congolese government to deliver justice without compromise by reforming their armed forces and prosecuting any actors, state or non-state, responsible for atrocities such as rape.
Finally we can push stakeholders involved in peacemaking and peacebuilding to ensure that women have a seat at the decision-making table and are able to speak to, call for, and ensure delivery of a peace that truly returns peace back to Congo’s women.
As Christine Karumba said, “In the midst of this chaos and despite the failure of international community to deliver on the promises of Security Council Resolution 1325 to the women of Congo—if they still believe peace is possible—then who are we not to bring truth to that conviction.”
Photo: Congolese woman in a health clinic (IRIN)