This Is Great!

I’m over the moon about having something good to say about Barack Obama.  Apparently his administration has decided to climb back into the leadership saddle at the UN:

After nearly a decade of an often tense and estranged relationship with the United Nations, Washington appears to be taking a much more conciliatory and multilateral approach to the world body.

U.S. President Barack Obama formally restored funding for the U.N. Population Fund (UNFPA) Wednesday by signing a major spending bill, prompting U.N. officials to again welcome the policy shift on women’s health-related rights.

In January, Obama issued an executive order lifting an eight-year ban on U.S. funding for overseas family-planning groups and clinics that perform or promote abortion or lobby for its legalisation.

“We are delighted that the United States will, once again, take a leading role in championing women’s reproductive health, and rights,” said UNFPA’s executive director Thoraya Ahmed Obaid. “This is a great day for women and girls.”

During the administration of George W. Bush, the UNFPA lost its U.S. funding on charges that it was trying to promote abortion, an allegation that Obaid and other officials strongly denied.

In a recent statement, Obama said the resumption of U.S. funding would help not only to reduce poverty, but also improve the health of women and children and prevent HIV/AIDS.

UNFPA says due to the U.S. restrictions on funding its programmes, millions of women in poor countries were unable to access health care during pregnancy and that many of them died as a result.

Earlier this week, Obama signed the legislative omnibus funding bill containing a 50-million-dollar contribution to UNFPA. The funding had been in limbo since 2002 when Bush began to implement his ideologically-driven policies towards women’s rights.  [more]

The UNFPA has been almost hopelessly underfunded.  Among other things, it’s the UN agency responsible for the health of women in the DNC – those who have been raped and maimed by DNC rebels and soldiers.  Much more money is needed than will be provided by this change, but it’s a wonderful new start.  Thanks Barack!

Hoping Obama Will Help

My dreams have been full of the women of the Democratic Republic of Congo for months and months and my heart cracks a little more each time I think of them.  The Bush administration, the U.N., my country and the powerful countries of the world have been unsuccessful in ameliorating he conditions for women in Congo, to the extent that anyone has tried.  These days, I often push thoughts of those women aside out of feelings of despair.

Thus, it was with a sense of relief and great hope that I read the following open letter to President-Elect Obama at The Huffington Post:

On December 5, 2008, a few days before the 60th anniversary of Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a group of global and domestic women’s organizations gathered in New York to frame a shared agenda for advancing global women’s rights. Determined to use their collective strength and expertise to work together to advance a global agenda for women’s freedom, safety and agency, they crafted the following open letter to President-elect Obama and committed to working together to see their vision come true in this century.
Dear President-Elect Obama,

As a group of women leaders who have given our lives to the transformation, protection and empowerment of women in the United States and globally, we want to begin by congratulating you. We are honored and proud to have you lead the nation during this historic time. We also welcome your call to action, reminding us of what we have always known — that as global citizens we cannot solely rely on any one administration’s ability to bring about change, but must be steadfast in pushing forward our own vision and agendas.

We represent a historic movement for change: millions of women across the globe with innovative ideas, influential constituencies and collaborative solutions. We are calling on you to ensure that women are equally represented in everything, from your administration’s infrastructure to its decision-making and solution building. We are calling on you to exercise leadership in dismantling the structures that perpetuate gender inequality, impede women’s full participation in society and thwart real progress for people around the world.

As war rages in Gaza, it is clear that the time has come to dismantle militarism as the dominant ideology in world politics. We must ensure that women take the lead in building lasting peace in the Middle East, ending genocide in Darfur, stopping femicide in the Democratic Republic of Congo, fighting the War on Terror in Afghanistan, and ending the war in Iraq.

Though the select-few women who hold leadership positions in this country’s political system inspire us; women represent more than 50% of the population and deserve more than marginal representation. We believe that in order for your vision of change to succeed, women must be in positions of power. While US women gained the right to vote 100 years ago, to date only 14% of the US Congress are women. This must change.

The major economic, security, governance and environmental challenges of our times cannot be solved without the equal participation of women at all levels of society — from the home to institutions of national and global governance. Women’s voices must be central in all major discussions including the economic crisis, overhauling our education system. Long-term investments in women’s education, health and leadership development are equally critical. Economic structures continue to marginalize women. Consider this: women represent two-thirds of the world’s labor yet we own less than 1% of the world’s assets.

In addition, more than 500,000 women die each year because of inadequate medical and reproductive care. Violence against women is a pandemic that determines women’s realities, impeding their access to education and economic self-sufficiency. This global epidemic is undermining the future of the world, as women are at the heart of all communities and families; we literally carry the future in our bodies.

Yet these are not “women’s issues.” In fact, such investments are vital to economic growth and the well-being of all individuals, communities, societies and nations. Consider India’s economic transformation of the past 15 years: The World Bank finds that states with the highest percentage of women in the labor force grew the fastest and had the largest reductions in poverty.

As policy makers, activists, researchers, and grant-makers we have spent our lives investing in women and know that these kinds of investments have immeasurable and fundamental impact for the better. Worldwide, women are uniquely positioned to bring innovative insights and creative solutions to global leadership forums. If we hope to improve existing economic, peace and security, and human development frameworks women must not only be included, but must be at the heart of the discussion.

We are calling on you to be the President who ushers in the time of women. Our vision of the future is one in which women and men are equal partners, standing shoulder to shoulder in confronting the world’s challenges. We welcome, with hope and anticipation, your shared commitment to this vision.  [emphasis mine]

We represent more than half of the world’s human potential. And our time has come.


Linda Basch, PhD
President, National Council for Research on Women

Mallika Dutt
Executive Director, Breakthrough: Building Human Rights Culture

Eve Ensler
Founder, V-Day

Adrienne Germain
President, International Women’s Health Coalition

Sara Gould
CEO, Ms. Foundation

Christine Grumm
CEO, Women’s Funding Network

Geeta Rao Gupta
President, International Center for Research on Women

Carolyn Makinson
Executive Director, Women’s Commission for Refugee Women and Children

Kavita Ramdas
CEO, Global Fund for Women

Zainab Salbi
President, Women for Women International

In February, V-Day will be in  five American cities with its “Turning Pain to Power” tour – New York, Washington D.C., Atlanta, San Francisco and Los Angeles.  Dr. Dennis Mukwege will be on the tour with Eve Ensler.  Dr. Mukwege runs the Panzi Hospital in the DRC, offering services to women and girls who have been raped and won the 2008 UN Human Rights Prize.

Check out the V-Day site for more information on the tour and for tickets.  Please!

The World is Indifferent to DRC

From IPS:

International lust for the enormous mineral and resource riches of the Democratic Republic of the 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, say activists.

“Rape is being used as a deliberate tool to control people and territory,” said Eve Ensler, a celebrated U.S. 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 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, hundreds more 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 Jan. 22, 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 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 U.N. 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 U.N. Security Council, chaired by U.S. 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 U.N. 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 U.N. 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 U.N. 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”.

Read the rest here

Rape & Death in Congo

From Michelle Rice at the Sydney Morning Herald:

In Congo there is belligerent rape by all sides. Shooting, looting and raping go hand in hand. Rebels and soldiers take everything from people who have almost nothing to give.

“There are guns and rape. You cannot stop rape until you stop war,” says Clarisse Kasaza, a World Vision aid worker who works with rape victims.

“In 2006 many families started hiding their wives, mothers and daughters in the ceiling. But eventually bandits became suspicious and if they didn’t see women in the home they started shooting the roof. There is nowhere for women to hide here.”

Martha, now 43, has committed her life to helping rape victims and caring for children born from rape. “Three times a month I speak in communities to help people understand the crime of rape and I teach other women to be helpers in their communities.”

In the past year of fighting, a group of 90 women has formed around Martha to support one another. They meet weekly and those rejected by their husbands after being raped have taken a house together.

“We also have a revolving loan so we can build up a market business and savings for the group. That way we can afford to feed our children and send the children to school.”

Martha’s 18-year-old daughter, Venacia*, helps look after the 12 orphaned children who share her home. “They are like brothers and sisters,” she says. “We play together. I teach them how to help around the house and make them food.”

Venacia sees the worst of it every week. “One month ago I saw soldiers raping two girls. And then one of them pushed sticks up the vagina … She was bleeding very badly. I ran to get my mother and when we got back one of the girls had died. We took the other one home to care for her.

“I am angry every time my mother brings women to our house and I see them suffering. And I am scared because I know this could happen to me.”

More than 2000 rape cases are reported in the North Kivu region a month. One community in Rutshuru, now under rebel control, reported 150 cases in a month. But most are not reported. “Women are scared and fear discrimination, community isolation or being thrown out of home by their husbands,” Kasaza says.

Not everyone is happy about Martha’s help. Last month she was again raped while collecting firewood and last week she was attacked in her home by soldiers who demanded she stop doing this work with women. But she is not discouraged.

“It’s what keeps me going. I have thought about ending my life many, many times. But then I see the children I have and the women who need support and I stop myself.”

* Martha and Venacia are pseudonyms.

Read the whole thing here

These numbers are startlingly gruesome.  Men, women and children are dying and the low estimate is that 2000 women and girls are being raped in the most barbarous fashion, imaginable, every month.

from Amnesty International


Everyone on alert.  Amnesty International says there’s about to be a humanitarian crisis in Congo:

As the civilian death toll in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) continues to rise, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and more than forty other organizations active in Africa warned today that the situation in the eastern DRC is at risk of turning into a humanitarian catastrophe, and called on the UN Human Rights Council to convene a special session on the crisis without delay.  [here]

Oh what the hell.  5.8 million people have been killed in the DRC over the course of its wars; hundreds of thousands of women have been raped, gang-raped, turned into sex slaves, impregnanted, infected with HIV and mutilated.  That’s not already a humanitarian catastrophe?  WTF?!

Democratic Republic of Congo

Resources for keeping up on events in the Democratic Republic of Congo:

After a recent, tenuous cease-fire was broken, fighting between the Congolese army and a rebel minority has resumed with intensity. The violence has garnered a fair amount of attention from the mainstream media, but how long will that coverage last?

Probably not long considering that foreign affairs, especially those not directly related to the United States, make up only a fraction of what Americans read, see, and hear: 8 percent of network news, 13 percent of newspaper coverage, 4 percent of cable news. The Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting pleads with its readers to stay interested in the issue, as continued attention will encourage editors to offer more extensive coverage.

But if and when the conflict fades from America’s consciousness, here are some sites from around the world with thoughtful reports on the situation and its implications:

Have a look at Utne Reader

I’ve watched the issue of the terrible violence in the DRC fall on and off the map for quite awhile and I find it just heartbreaking.  There is a holocaust going on there.  One day, a future generation will ask us what we did about it, just as we interrogate an earlier generation about what they did (didn’t do) about the Jewish holocaust.  I want to have an answer I’m not ashamd of.

Congo’s Holocaust

Yes, we’ve all been sitting on our butts here in the West while a holocaust rages in Congo.  5.8 million people dead; untold numbers of women raped, gang-raped, forced into pregnancy, infected with HIV and maimed for life.  When I read the history of WW II, I often come across the question, why did we do nothing to stop the mass killing of Jews?  We can ask the same question now:  why have we done nothing, why are we still doing nothing, to stop the holocaust in Congo?  I thought it was never supposed to happen again.

From Johann Hari at The Independent:

The deadliest war since Adolf Hitler marched across Europe is starting again – and you are almost certainly carrying a blood-soaked chunk of the slaughter in your pocket. When we glance at the holocaust in Congo, with 5.4 million dead, the clichés of Africa reporting tumble out: this is a “tribal conflict” in “the Heart of Darkness”. It isn’t. The United Nations investigation found it was a war led by “armies of business” to seize the metals that make our 21st-century society zing and bling. The war in Congo is a war about you.


Every day I think about the people I met in the war zones of eastern Congo when I reported from there. The wards were filled with women who had been gang-raped by the militias and shot in the vagina. The battalions of child soldiers – drugged, dazed 13-year-olds who had been made to kill members of their own families so they couldn’t try to escape and go home. But oddly, as I watch the war starting again on CNN, I find myself thinking about a woman I met who had, by Congolese standards, not suffered in extremis.

I was driving back to Goma from a diamond mine one day when my car got a puncture. As I waited for it to be fixed, I stood by the roadside and watched the great trails of women who stagger along every road in eastern Congo, carrying all their belongings on their backs in mighty crippling heaps. I stopped a 27 -year-old woman called Marie-Jean Bisimwa, who had four little children toddling along beside her. She told me she was lucky. Yes, her village had been burned out. Yes, she had lost her husband somewhere in the chaos. Yes, her sister had been raped and gone insane. But she and her kids were alive.

I gave her a lift, and it was only after a few hours of chat along on cratered roads that I noticed there was something strange about Marie-Jean’s children. They were slumped forward, their gazes fixed in front of them. They didn’t look around, or speak, or smile. “I haven’t ever been able to feed them,” she said. “Because of the war.”

Their brains hadn’t developed; they never would now. “Will they get better?” she asked. I left her in a village on the outskirts of Goma, and her kids stumbled after her, expressionless.

There are two stories about how this war began – the official story, and the true story. The official story is that after the Rwandan genocide, the Hutu mass murderers fled across the border into Congo. The Rwandan government chased after them. But it’s a lie. How do we know? The Rwandan government didn’t go to where the Hutu genocidaires were, at least not at first. They went to where Congo’s natural resources were – and began to pillage them. They even told their troops to work with any Hutus they came across. Congo is the richest country in the world for gold, diamonds, coltan, cassiterite, and more. Everybody wanted a slice – so six other countries invaded.

These resources were not being stolen to for use in Africa. They were seized so they could be sold on to us. The more we bought, the more the invaders stole – and slaughtered. The rise of mobile phones caused a surge in deaths, because the coltan they contain is found primarily in Congo. The UN named the international corporations it believed were involved: Anglo-America, Standard Chartered Bank, De Beers and more than 100 others. (They all deny the charges.) But instead of stopping these corporations, our governments demanded that the UN stop criticising them. [emphasis mine]

There were times when the fighting flagged. In 2003, a peace deal was finally brokered by the UN and the international armies withdrew. Many continued to work via proxy militias – but the carnage waned somewhat. Until now. As with the first war, there is a cover-story, and the truth. A Congolese militia leader called Laurent Nkunda – backed by Rwanda – claims he needs to protect the local Tutsi population from the same Hutu genocidaires who have been hiding out in the jungles of eastern Congo since 1994. That’s why he is seizing Congolese military bases and is poised to march on Goma.

It is a lie. François Grignon, Africa Director of the International Crisis Group, tells me the truth: “Nkunda is being funded by Rwandan businessmen so they can retain control of the mines in North Kivu. This is the absolute core of the conflict. What we are seeing now is beneficiaries of the illegal war economy fighting to maintain their right to exploit.”

See the whole thing here

And see Roxanne Stasyszyn at Dissident Voice:

Most every Congolese citizen will agree that the reason for the instability in Congo is the international influence within their borders. Some point their finger at mineral trafficking. Some point to tribal and historical ‘facts’. Others, like Vital Katembo, claim it is obvious that people are doing harm when they are not achieving what they claim to work for—speaking of the humanitarian aid and conservation sectors—especially when they have the needed resources to accomplish their missions.

No matter where you point your finger or for what reason, the DRC is an international playground filled with extremely dangerous toys and irresponsible playmates. Many times, knowing where to point is simply based on how dangerous it is to point that way.

Congo Falls Apart (More)

Congo Update:

Congo rebels agreed Thursday to open humanitarian corridors near besieged Goma, but aid agencies warned of a “catastrophe” as terrified residents recounted tales of rape, looting and murder.

Rebel leader Laurent Nkunda, whose forces are on the edge of the eastern city, vowed in a letter to the United Nations mission in Kinshasa to allow “humanitarian organisations access to those in need who are behind our lines.”

Few people remained on the streets of Goma, where shops, schools and offices were closed as residents lived in fear of out-of-control remnants of the Congolese army, many of them drunk.

An AFP reporter was shown the bodies of seven civilians, including two women. All were killed overnight by Congolese soldiers on a looting binge, said landlord Jospeh Ndakola.

“Soldiers burst in here in the evening and stayed until four o’clock in the morning,” he said. “They looted all my tenants’ belongings, making them carry their things to their vehicles, and then they came back in to murder them.”

There were also reports from local residents that two women had been raped overnight on the outskirts of Goma in an area called Mosho.

“There is firing here, there are soldiers who are going from door to door to pillage our possessions,” resident Janine Kanyere told AFP by telephone from Goma’s Birere district.

“They are four homes away from me, I am frightened, I do not know what I am going to do,” she said.

Nkunda’s forces have captured several key towns in eastern Congo, sparking a mass exodus from the countryside and risking what UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon called a humanitarian crisis of “catastrophic dimensions.”

Aid agencies said at least 30,000 internal refugees were trapped between the rebels and UN forces blocking their access to Goma.

UNHCR spokesman Andrej Mahecic said thousands of people in Nord-Kivu were streaming into neighbouring Rwanda and Uganda.

Around 8,000 people have crossed into Uganda, where they were being housed in schools, churches and other public buildings, while about 1,200 people have entered Rwanda.

The UN refugee agency said Wednesday 45,000 had fled a camp outside the city, panicked by a rushed withdrawal of government forces.

Most headed towards Goma, where officials said the population was fleeing amid scenes of chaos, alarmed by the influx of refugees.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) described the situation as “catastrophic”, while Human Rights Watch called on international leaders to respond before it was too late.

“International leaders who successfully intervened before should act quickly to prevent the crisis in North Kivu from reaching catastrophic proportions,” said senior Congo researcher Anneke Van Woudenberg.

Earlier, Nkunda warned UN forces blocking the way to the refugee-swollen city that they would open fire if the UN tried to halt their advance.

Around 800 peacekeepers from the UN’s MONUC force are the only obstacle to a complete rebel takeover of the city.

Agence France Presse

Ah, sorry Congo, the world is too busy watching America make a President.

Stealing Resources in Congo

Stephanie Nolen is a truly great reporter and writer.  Watch her at The Globe for articles like this one in which she explains how Rwandan rebels responsible for the genocide there have become rich at the expense of a million Congolese people killed, raped, maimed, turned into refugees and living without hope that their country will be restored to peace – and how the government of the DRC and multinational companies from Europe, Canada and the US profit from the ongoing war.  Here’s a bit:

A squad of Congolese army soldiers are posted in Luntukulu to, in theory, isolate the Rwandan rebels. In reality, the checkpoint serves as a handy place for the soldiers to collect bribes from those who carry the minerals out of the militia’s territory. “We pay at every checkpoint coming and going: Every person who crosses pays 500 francs [about $1]. It’s not official but the province and district authorities know it,” said Olivier Mugaruka, who travels the rough roads of this region to buy tin, tungsten and coltan.

The soldiers also take a cut out of everything hauled out by legitimate miners such as Mr. Beningabo – an informal tax just like the 10 per cent he must pay to his village chief.

And that’s just small scale. In the next province of North Kivu, the infamous 85th brigade of the Congolese armed forces controls a huge cassiterite mine at Bisie, where it forces the local population to work. Although Congolese civil society organizations and media have repeatedly shown that the brigade controls the mine – and pockets the revenue from it – work continues undisturbed, and the tin is exported through both legal and illegal channels.

“We can only conclude that these activities are sanctioned at the highest levels,” said Patrick Alley, director of the British-based organization Global Witness, which has made extensive study of Congo’s mineral industry.

Read the whole terrible story here

And what has Canada done to assist the UN and the Congolese people?  Nada:

Allan Thompson, a Carleton University journalism professor and head of the Rwanda Initiative at the school, found two instances where Canada was asked by the UN, informally, to lead the Congo mission: 2003 and earlier this year. Canada’s help is seen by many as particularly significant because the country can send officials who speak French, the official language of Congo, and because Canada is well-regarded internationally.

However, Canada has rejected calls to lead the mission. Instead, Ottawa has opted to focus its attention and resources on the Afghanistan mission. The decision is seen by some as perhaps the most significant sign that Canada is moving further away from its internationally recognized role in global peacekeeping.

Read the whole article here



This just makes me sick:

KANIOLA, DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF CONGO — In Kaniola, they have coined a new term: reviolé.


At the Catholic parish office, on the cramped and crowded ledger pages where they list rape victims, at least half the names appear more than once: women who have been victims of sexual enslavement or public gang rape by rebel groups or the Congolese army; women, 30 in an average month, who have come to the parish to get help reaching a hospital to repair their injuries; women who have been healed, come home and a year or two or three later, been gang-raped again, during another small surge of the conflict.

The youngest victim on the list is 6. The oldest is 74.

Remember just a few months ago that, amidst great fanfare, Condoleeza Rice appeared at the UN to celebrate the passage by the Security Council of Resolution 1820, demanding an immediate end to acts of sexual violence against “civilians” as they put it – gender neutrality at its most strange.  I pointed out at the time that the Resolution was, first, unnecessary, since the 1998 Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court had already criminalized sexual abuse as a tactic of war and, second, the Resolution had absolutely no teeth, since it said only the the UN may adopt “appropriate steps” to address such abuses “when necessary”.  Because neither the Security Council nor the UN as a whole nor any individual country has ever adopted any steps to stop the abuse, because women from the affected countries were not included in the debates or the consultation process and because a peace keeping document negotiated by the UN with the DRC included an amnesty for participation in war crimes to those who had participated in the fighting, it seemed highly unlikely to me that the UN had any intention whatsoever of doing anything at all to stop the rape of Congo’s women.

That view was only bolstered by the fact that the UN Population Fund that provides money to care for women and girls who have been sexually violated and, in many cases, permanently maimed, is chronically underfunded and, even as Condi Rice was celebrating, the US axed its June installment to the Fund, following seven years of cuts totalling nearly $300 million.

The raping of women in the DRC never stopped, as pointed out by Stephen Lewis who said, “The war may stutter; the raping is unabated.”

Well, now the war has stuttered itself into another start.  And the raping is unabated:

The epidemic of rape in the Democratic Republic of Congo, without doubt the most horrific and persistent abuse of women anywhere in the world, has flared in a vicious new outbreak in recent weeks with renewed fighting in the country’s troubled eastern region.

Mass rape began here with the civil war in 1996. That conflict quickly sucked in all of Congo’s neighbours, and killed an estimated five million people. “And it brought systematic, planned, ordered, collective public rape – rape used as a weapon of war – it is a war within a war,” said Mathilde Muhindo, who heads Centre Olame, one of Congo’s oldest women’s organizations, founded nearly 50 years ago. Rape was used as a tactic by every single armed force here – each with their signature style: some raped women with guns and shot them off as a finale, some raped girls, some forced sons to rape mothers.

Congo moved into a fragile peace in 2003, and the rate of rape declined. Much of the country came under the nominal control of the central government – but not the volatile, mineral-rich east, home to no fewer than 23 armed groups. Here the conflict simmered for years, and flared once again into full-on fighting in late August because, it seems, a glacial peace process threatened to cut off warlords and neighbouring-country governments from their access to the illegal mineral trade.

With the fighting came a resurgence of rape. Admissions at the two hospitals in the east that can repair the injuries of rape victims have spiked in the past six weeks. Many more victims are assumed to be, as in previous years, trapped deep in the bush, cut off from help by the lack of roads, lack of transport, lack of any money or by the fighting.

That fills Congo’s women with panicked despair.

“When will it end?” Ms. Muhindo asked. “This is shameful, not just for Congo, but for all humanity.”

Since The Globe and Mail published one of the first in-depth examinations of Congo’s epidemic of rape four years ago, the gravity of the situation has become better known internationally, with more media coverage, more investigations by human-rights organizations and even charities formed abroad – such as Social Aid For the Elimination of Rape (SAFER) at the University of Toronto – to support Congolese rape survivors.

Where, four years ago, no one in eastern Congo wanted to talk about rape, today there are local organizations ostensibly dedicated to caring for victims in nearly every town, and much more donor funding available for the issue; la lutte contre la violence sexuelle has, in fact, become something of a cottage industry here.

And yet for Congolese women, almost nothing has changed. There is a better system in place to refer them for medical care, as the Kaniola parish does. And that is it.

Places such as this town, which is near the edge of a vast national park, are all but under the control of a Rwandan rebel group made up mostly of remnants of the interahamwe, the Hutu militia that committed Rwanda’s genocide in 1994 then fled into Congo. They routinely descend on Kaniola to pillage goods and abduct women whom they force-march up to their forest base camp and sexually enslave, submitting them to brutal, daily rape, sometimes branding their buttocks for amusement.

“On a Friday in September, 2007, I heard a knocking on the door in the night and a voice told us to open and when we did, they caught me,” said Esperance, who was a 19-year-old student at teacher’s college when she was abducted. She did not give her surname. “One tied me to him with a length of cloth so I could not run. They took all our cows, and they took me.” She was held by the militia for eight months, until she was heavily pregnant and they were paying her less attention and she found a chance to slip away and run for home.

Esperance, who hunches over her knees and rocks back and forth when she’s not speaking, remembers one other detail about the night she was taken: the interahamwe were accompanied by soldiers she recognized, members of a Congolese army brigade stationed nearby. After the combined forces looted her whole village, they moved up the road and divided the spoils, before the soldiers went back to their posts and the rebels dragged her up into the forest.

That was not an aberration: Congolese soldiers are frequently implicated in rapes, and the Congolese government, both feeble and uninterested, has done nothing to address the problem.

“The issue is not taken seriously by those in power – the state doesn’t get involved,” said Vénantie Bisimua, who founded the Network of Women for the Defence of Rights and Peace in eastern Congo. “The rape here has never been discussed in parliament or by cabinet. Our penal code still doesn’t include being raped with a gun or an object, or being shot in the vagina. We have a weak administration in a dysfunctional situation and they think it’s a women’s problem; they have other priorities.”

Kaniola sits just a half-hour’s drive down the road from a large base of the United Nations peacekeeping mission in Congo – known by its French acronym MONUC – the largest in the world with 17,000 peacekeepers. But none of them were around the night Esperance was taken.

“We have a MONUC base but we can’t turn to them. When we have a problem they say, ‘We are here for observation only,’“ said Marie-Jeanne Rwankuba, who maintains the Kaniola parish rape-victim ledger. In fact, the UN mission in Congo has a Chapter 7 mandate from the Security Council that authorizes it to use any means necessary to protect civilians. It almost never does.

International groups have tried to bolster the judicial system in eastern Congo, in the hope of prosecuting rapists, and organizations such as Ms. Bisimua’s have tried to help women file cases. “But it’s difficult to do many dossiers because we can’t identify the perpetrators, and when we do take forward a case, the victims find it does little for them – it’s a long process, it takes place far from their homes and there’s no guarantee of their security,” she said. “If convicted, the perpetrator may go to prison for a short term, but the prison is essentially open and he can walk out. No one is punished.”

But ending rape here depends on more than pushing the state to protect or prosecute. “Unless the war ends and unless the militias stop fighting, we will be sewing up vaginas for eternity – and unless the foreign governments who are benefiting from the resources in the Congo face pressure to cease the fighting and withdraw the troops, we will be here forever,” said Eve Ensler, the New York playwright best known as the creator of The Vagina Monologues, who has become an impassioned advocate for Congo’s women over the past two years.

“Everyone says the war in Congo is complicated. It is not complicated – it’s an economic war that has been fought on the bodies of women – it is the systematic destruction of the female population of the Congo – and it’s conscious and it’s intentional,” she said in a telephone interview from London, where she was lobbying on the issue last week.

Ms. Ensler’s organization, V-Day, in partnership with Unicef, has organized truth-telling sessions in 90 villages, where women stand up to tell what happened to them, forcing men, particularly officials, to acknowledge the rapes. They have staged street demonstrations, and are working on a list of demands for women’s safety and a possible civil-disobedience campaign. Congo’s government must do more, she said, but international action is also crucial, including the arrest of “war criminals orchestrating this war from abroad.”

There is no sign, to date, of any such moves. Rebel troops are now on the move across the eastern part of the country, and as each group takes new territory, there is more rape. At least 100,000 people have been displaced by the renewed fighting, yet for many women, the place they seek shelter is no safer than the one they left.

Esperance is staying put in Kaniola, for now; she lives with her infant daughter, born weeks after she escaped the rebels, and her mother. Her father was killed by rebels years before, and after the night last year that her home was looted, the two women and baby girl have no money to go anywhere else.

“I’m really afraid because the interahamwe are still in the bush,” she said. “And if they come back, they may take me again.”

Mass rape.  Since 1996.  I cannot begin to fathom the suffering nor, I suppose, can I truly wish to do so.  No doubt with the economic crisis now facing the world, there will be even less reason to suppose that either the UN or any country will care enough to even talk about it anymore.  I am left considering the use of mind altering drugs.  The women of the DRC don’t have that choice.

Stephen Lewis in an April 15th article in The Nation:

I want to set out an argument that essentially says that what’s happening in the Congo is an act of criminal international misogyny, sustained by the indifference of nation states and by the delinquency of the United Nations.

Mr. Lewis, a UN insider, then set out an agenda that he believed the UN would have to follow in order to have any impact on the situation of women in the DNC.  Lewis is one of the best human beings I have ever known.  It’s beyond me how he has sustained his struggle against injustice in the face of the inhumanity and inaction he has witnessed.  Perhaps out of a sense that the UN wasn’t about to follow his advice, Lewis founded The Stephen Lewis Foundation and Grandmothers to Grandmothers to work with grandmothers in Africa caring for children whose parents are ill or have died from HIV/AIDS.  The organization also works specifically with Dr. Denis Mukwege of the Panzi Hospital in the DRC:

“Terrible, unspeakable things are being done to women in the Congo. They live in fear of being violated, tortured, mutilated and infected with HIV” says Stephen Lewis, Chair of the Stephen Lewis Foundation and former United Nations Special Envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa.

Despiste such atrocity, local success stories are emerging. Join Stephen Lewis and Dr Denis Mukwege, founder and Director of the Panzi Hospital in Bukavu, DRC, as they discuss sexual violence in the DRC and how the Panzi Hospital – which specializes in the obstetric and gynecological consequences of sexual violence and has treated some 15,000 women and girls since 1999 – has become a refuge for the female survivors of war.

Since 2005, SAFER (Social Aid for the Elimination of Rape) has purchased and shipped $40 000 worth of crucial medical supplies to Panzi Hospital. And since November 2007, the Stephen Lewis Foundation has provided $650 000 to the DRC to help the Panzi Hospital establish an extensive HIV/AIDS testing and treatment programme and develop psychosocial support services for the staff and patients who live each day in the face of extreme trauma and suffering.

I try to stay away from those mind altering drugs by sending any spare cash I have to the Stephen Lewis Foundation and by working with Grandmothers to Grandmothers.  Of special note to Torontonians – on November 28th, Stephen Lewis and Dr. Mukwege will be speaking at Convocation Hall at 7:30 p.m. on the subject of ending sexual violence in the DRC.  Tickets can be purchased via the website, here.

UPDATE:  For more information on the DRC and what you can do to help, check out these websites and blogs:

Friends of the Congo

Stop Genocide



UPDATE II:  From the Institute for Public Accuracy

This week is “Break the Silence” Congo week, a global initiative led by students to raise awareness and provide support to the people of Congo. Events are planned in more than 30 countries and on 125 college campuses.

The Congo has been virtually ignored during the campaign. It was raised in one debate by Tom Brokaw, who asked about “the use of United States combat forces in situations where there’s a humanitarian crisis … [like] the Congo, where 4.5 million people have died since 1998.” But neither candidate mentioned the country in their response; Obama talked about Darfur in Sudan and McCain talked about Iraq.

Read the whole thing here