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Hope For The Hopeless: Fighting On For Congo Women

Madelaine Behrens |
March 6, 2014 | 12:07 p.m. PST


UN Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict, Zainab Bangura (russavia, Wikimedia Commons)
UN Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict, Zainab Bangura (russavia, Wikimedia Commons)
Inspiring change.

This is the theme of International Women’s Day, happening on March 8. A broad statement, the theme of this day attempts to celebrate how far women of the world have come as well as recognize and alter the lives of women all over the world who still struggle to gain even their basic human rights.

For women of the western world, who have celebrated an International Women’s Day since 1911, it might be difficult, nearly impossible even, to empathetically enter the mindset of the Congolese woman. Women in the western world have the right to vote, the right to an education, to own property, to pursue whatever career path they choose and the right to speak their mind. The women of the Congo, in contrast, are often not even seen as human. They are laborers, caretakers, objects, weapons and battlegrounds.

The war torn nation of the Democratic Republic of the Congo has seen destruction,  mass killing, and fighting since the early 1990s, when the first of two international wars began and gave rise to other civil wars and mass atrocities against civilians. The conflict is resource-driven. The Democratic Republic of the Congo is abundant with natural resources, particularly minerals like gold, tin, tantalum (also known by its naturally-occuring ore, coltan) and tungsten. These minerals can be sold, and are used in goods sold eveywhere in the United States: automobiles, sports equipment and, most notably, electronics.

Everyone wants a piece of the Congo. And in this sick, atrocious economics game, the marginal benefits always somehow outweigh the costs: hundreds of thousands of womens’ lives and dignity.

The commitment of armed forces to sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) is at the heart of the conflict minerals crisis. Militant groups, domestic and foreign, use SGBV tactics as a weapon to terrorize entire villages, who are subsequently shocked and broken from watching their wives, sisters and daughters publicly shamed and tortured. This power can then be used to force civilians to work in the mines to gather these lucrative minerals, which can then be sent to smelters, and then to western companies, and then to our homes, offices and pockets.

While the conflict minerals crisis as a whole has caught the attention of consumers, lawmakers, and large companies (evidenced by Apple's recent commitment to phasing out the use of conflict minerals in their products) , this has not significantly slowed down the amount of violence that occurs still in the region. Violence continues to be committed against these women “because it can” be committed without consequence. Right now, the women of the congo are alone in their struggle. They are defenseless because they have no political power, and even the Congolese army and the police force are guilty of rape. Furthermore, these women are often shunned by their communities after the incident, divorced by their husbands, and are left with nothing, especially not any understanding or sympathy.

Inclusion of women in the peace process is a necessary component of creating lasting peace in the Congo. It is needed to ensure that half of the population, those that make up the heart of Congolese communities, can finally have their voices heard. In honor of Internatoional Women's Day 2014, the Enough Project, an NGO active in calling for corporate accountability around the issue of conflict minerals, is partnering with the United Nations for an event that will explore how this can be done. 

Such an event raises the question: how can we, in the United States, expect to make any sort of impact on the conflict in the Congo and intervene in these stark violations of women’s human rights?

One would think that we have no ability to participate in a peace process occurring so far away from us. This Women's Day, however, we should make a commitment to help the women of Congo. Because we can. We can because we have the power as consumers and citizens in a democratic nation to put an end to the conflict minerals trade.

The Enough Project Conflict-Free Campus Initiative (CFCI) is a global alliance of students, committed to pressuring their colleges and universities to take a stand against conflict minerals and investing in companies with ethical and transparent supply chains. This gives students the potential to influence major corporations, which in turn weild control over where the money is directed for minerals coming out of the Congo. If universities and other major consumers make commitments to only buy from responsible companies, we can essentially control the incomes of the militant groups in the Congo. If we can control the incomes of these military groups, we also control their ability to buy guns and grenades, and thus their ability to wage war on the nation as well as the sexual war on women.

USC STAND Against Genocide, the USC chapter of CFCI, is working to raise student awareness of the conflict as well as urging the school administration to use its influence and encourage its business partners to adopt conflict-free business practices. This Wednesday, March 12, STAND and the Political Student Assembly are holding a rally for the Congo, to inspire and motivate more students to join the cause, and to ultimately gain school-wide support for a conflict-free SC. We eventually hope to see USC take its own official stance against conflict minerals. Companies are finally starting to listen to the voices of concerned consumers. By encouraging a USC that is conflict-free, we have the power to make a difference in the lives of all of the women in the Congo.

We have the power to help bring an end to mass violence.


Watch the live broadcast of "Elevating the Conversation on Sexual Violence" Thursday, March 6 at 3:15 PM PST here.

Reach Contributor Madelaine Behrens here. For more information, email USC STAND here, visit their Facebook page or check out the CFCI website.



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