Friday, March 27, 2009

Stopping War Crimes against Women in the Democratic Republic of Congo Starts Locally---one cell phone at a time.

“A human being is a part of the whole called by us universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feeling as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.” Albert Einstein

The blossoms on the flowering spring trees are so beautiful, beautiful like the soul of a woman. New, full of energy, vibrant, singing the joys of re-birth into yet another season. Last night, I saw the beauty of the trees in blossom, but also the sting of full raindrops on their fragile petals. Heavy raindrops that cinched the edges of the leaves to brown and left them heavy with condensation----wetness that tore the edges and destroyed the pristine quality of their beautiful blossom. Last night, I also heard the stories of the women of Congo, who like the beautiful flowers of the Spring Trees, found their bodies destroyed by the brutal pillaging of their sexual organs through massive rapes that they could not stop.

The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), as it is known today, is a country that has endured tremendous challenges since the inception of war in 1996. A war incited by many factors, including a fight of power between seven foreign armies to gain control of the country’s abundant reserves of precious natural materials that include oil, gas, rubber and metals. As over 80% of the world’s coltan and nearly 1/3rd of the world’s tin---the two materials commonly found in every cell phone and laptop---is found in the DRC, increasing worldwide consumption of these products has resulted in a war that has been prolonged for over 10 years. By participating in the mass consumption of consumer electronics, we are indirectly contributing to this “African World War”, and the ramifications of our everyday decisions have a devastating effect on the communities and people of our global family.

Although the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are plastered in the Western news every day, we rarely hear about the war in the Democratic Republic of Congo, even though it has been the deadliest war since World War II. Violence, rape and sexual assault is widespread and devastating; over the past ten years, 5.4 million people have been killed and more than 200,000 women raped by paramilitary soldiers and even some of the peacekeepers that have been sent to distribute aid.

Although all death and suffering is a tragedy, the sexual exploitation of the Congolese women has been perhaps the most disheartening crime committed of all. Just as the hills and rivers of Congo are being stripped of their natural richness, the women of Congo are being raped of their femininity by massive acts of inhumane sexual violence, leaving them literally and figuratively naked, physically and emotionally perpetrated, and with no where to run. This sexual violence takes the life of many women, and leaves many other mothers, daughters and caretakers with impending medical conditions, including fistulas (a rupture of the walls that separate the vagina and bladder or rectum), permanent incontinence.

Why does this happen? Denis Mukwege, the Director of Panzi Hospital---one of the few places in the DRC where women victims of rape can go to receive medical care---assesses the situation by saying that "The perpetrators are trying to make the damage as bad as they can, to use it as a kind of weapon of war, a kind of terrorism. Instead of just killing the woman, she goes back to her village permanently and obviously marked. I think it's a strategy put in place by these groups to disrupt society, to make husbands flee, to terrorize.”

Like the beautiful blossoms that were damaged by the rain, the women of Congo lose their souls to sexual exploitation, and only time and a re-birth will help them heal their wounds and re-blossom into a new season of their lives. One such healer and change maker that is wielding the power of women’s voices worldwide to raise awareness of the injustices against women in Congo and supporting rape victims so that they may experience re-birth is Sylvie Maunga Mbanga. Working with such organizations as the Interchurch Organization for Development Cooperation (ICCO), Church in Action, and also the Life and Peace Institute, Sylvie has provided holistic intervention programs to assist victims of sexual violence through psychological counseling and medical care, legal services and access to judicial system, and economic support in the form of income-generating activities. Despite her own vulnerability, Sylvie has courageously moved forward with her peace-building work on women’s issues and ethnic conflict resolution. Her spirit and activism is something that should inspire us all to use our own voices to raise-up the voices of women and all citizens of our global community.

Preventing even more women from being subjected to these war crimes against humanity will entail major intervention and shifts and behavior by major global coalitions. You can begin to make a difference by sharing information about the war in the Democratic Republic of Congo with your circles of networks and keeping informed of ways to use your voice to influence the conflict by reviewing some of the international organizations listed below.

• Biography and Information on Sylvia Maunga Mbanga
• The International Rescue Committee
• Amnesty International
• Enough Campaign to “Raise Hope for Congo”
• Congo's Wounds of War: More Vicious than Rape. Newsweek. June 1, 2007.

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