Lori Perkovich reports on a United Nations panel discussion of the conflict-related sexual violence that plagues the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Leading up to International Women’s Day, the United Nations and the Enough Project co-sponsored a panel on sexual violence against women in the DRC. John Prendergast, human rights activist and co-founder of the Enough Project, moderated a group that included a representative from the United Nations Office of the Special Representative of the Secretary-General, United States Ambassador to the United Nations, activists, an actor and a representative from the private sector.
Each panelist added a unique perspective to the discussion. Tim Mohin, chair of the Electronic Industry Citizenship Coalition, addressed the role of natural resources in perpetuating the conflict in eastern DRC, as armed groups mine columbite-tantalite (coltan) and other minerals used in electronics to finance their battles. He acknowledged that the electronics industry has a part to play in solving the problem.
Mohin, director of corporate responsibility at Advanced Micro Devices, said he had not imagined his job would involve working to end sexual violence in DRC, yet it has turned out to be one of his most important endeavors. He had not seen how minerals, electronics, money, rape and murder connected to his life until he received a report on the process of sourcing minerals for the products Advanced Micro Devices manufactures. For him, DRC had been seven layers removed from the supply chain that he dealt with on a daily basis.
Tracking minerals has proven to be a daunting task, but new procedures such as a conflict-free smelter program now exist. Mohin explained that the industry must now file a report with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission that identifies the origins of the gold, tin, tungsten and tantalum. This tracking program is similar to The Kimberley Process, which attempts to stop the flow of conflict diamonds.
Mohin also argued that “DRC-free” is not an option because many Congolese citizens depend on revenue earned from legitimate mining operations. Cutting off those jobs would further damage the economy. For Mohin, “conflict-free” would break the link between natural resources, and rape and violence. His company now makes the first conflict-free processor.
Actor and activist Robin Wright said she became passionate about ending the DRC conflict after watching the film “The Greatest Silence,” in 2007. Since then, she has worked with Prendergast and the Enough Project to raise awareness through speaking engagements at universities and other events. Wright believes that any person who owns an electronic gadget has a responsibility to prevent rape and end this conflict. On a visit to DRC, she asked a rape victim what she could do. The victim replied, “End conflict mineral trade and funding for militias.”
Sylvie Maunga Mbanga, a Congolese lawyer and program facilitator for the Federal Leadership Institute, discussed the importance of creating a structure and securing more funding for medical assistance in DRC. She stressed the urgent need for services and support that do not further stigmatize victims. Too often, she said, police treat rape victims as criminals and do not prosecute perpetrators.
Zainab Hawa Bangura, the UN Special Representative on sexual violence in conflict, emphasized the importance of rethinking refugee camp dynamics. She discussed the need for physical restructuring of the camps so that women are not vulnerable once they are inside the camps. The current layout of most camps situates toilets in back of the compound where lighting is scarce and women are often raped. When officials go over the logistics for the camps, protecting women seems to land at the bottom of the list, behind housing, food and medical supplies, because it is not a tangible issue, she noted. However, she said it must be addressed because “if you don’t protect the witnesses, you will never be able to prosecute the perpetrators.”
When asked what steps are needed to eliminate sexual violence from conflict, Bangura said that “every peace agreement must address sexual violence.”
The U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, added that bringing women into the peacebuilding process also would be necessary to achieve a long-term result. Power noted that currently only 8 percent of mediators and 3 percent of signatories are women.
According to Anne Marie Goetz, former chief advisor on peace and security at UN Women, who spoke the next day at a panel at New York University, having women at the negotiating table is critical. The exclusion of women leads to a reversal of their rights, said Goetz, who is now a professor at NYU’s Center for Global Affairs. Protecting women but not allowing their voices to be heard relegates them to the same category as children – subordinates, in this case to men. However, social engagement improves social equality. Instead of discussing women as victims, she said, the dialogue shifts to describing women as leaders with the ability to solve problems and build societies.