Women in Africa’s Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) are calling on President Barack Obama to lend resources and influence in putting an end to the brutal violence against women taking place in that country.
A civil war erupted in the area in 1997 when rebel forces of Rwanda invaded the DRC. Since then, more than five million people have died, according to U.S. Department of State officials and the women’s advocate group, Solidarite Feminine Pour La Paix et le Developpement Integral, or SOFEPADI.
In an open letter sent to Obama on Dec. 11, SOFEPADI pleaded for assistance in ending the violence, in particular, mass rapes taking place against women at alarming rates.
“Mr. President, there are no graces within this subject, so I must speak frankly. They rape them in their homes. They rape them at the well. They are violently attacked and sexually assaulted, raped in villages everywhere,” said Julienne Lusenge, president of the SOFEPADI, in the letter. “When we go into the fields we are raped. There are armed men who block the roads, who stop the vehicles and rape the women as though it were nothing.”
“The only choice they have is between rape and death,” said Lusenge. “The men literally present them with this choice. To save her life the woman has to say, I accept the rape.”
Members of Congress said Obama hasn’t done enough to help those in harm’s way or stop those responsible for the violence, including the rebel group March 23 Movement, or M23, and numerous other smaller terrorist organizations.
Chris Smith (R-N.J.) said the reluctance to step into the conflict stems from the Rwandan genocide of 1994. During that time, American forces stood by as 800,000 of the nation’s Tutsi ethnic group were slaughtered in the space of a 100-day ethnic cleansing, according to the United Human Rights Council.
“It seems that guilt over the Clinton Administration’s failure responding effectively to the genocide in Rwanda has led subsequent U.S. administrations to be reluctant to criticize the Government of Rwanda,” Smith said in a statement before a Congressional hearing on The Devastating Crisis in Eastern Congo.
“It is time now to find a way to bring to an end the suffering of the people of the DRC,” he said, citing a May 2011 report in the American Journal of Public Health which found that approximately 48 women and children are raped every hour in the region.
Johnnie Carson, assistant secretary for the State Department’s Bureau of African Affairs, appeared before the House Committee on Foreign Affairs’ Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, and Human Rights on Dec. 11, testifying about the violence in the eastern region of the DRC, specifically in the province of Kivu.
“The commanders of the M23 represent a ‘who’s who’ of notorious human rights abusers in the eastern DRC,” said Carson, to the committee, chaired by Smith. “They include Bosco Ntaganda, who faces an International Criminal Court arrest warrant for sexual violence and other crimes against humanity and continues to play an active role in the militia.”
Ntaganda, leader of the M23 group, joined the National Congress for the Defence of the People, or CNDP, shortly after the genocide in Rwanda in 1994. The organization takes their name from the date the CNDP became a political party in 2009 after signing a peace treaty and becoming part of the Congolese national army.
Since that time, the group has led rebellions and fractioned the Congolese Army. Last month, M23 took over the eastern DRC city of Goma, and on Dec. 10 decided to boycott a peace conference they previously agreed to attend.
“The M23 would not be the threat it is today without external support, and we will continue to discourage outside parties from providing any assistance to the M23,” said Carson.
Still, committee members were displeased with Carson’s report that U.S. military aid to Rwanda has decreased by only $200,000 since June of this year.
The Congo is currently the site of the largest peacekeeping efforts by the United Nations in the world. The area is also very rich in mineral goods that are used all over the world. Seventy percent of the mineral coltan, used in cell phones and various electronic devices globally, come from the area. The Congo is also home to 30 percent of the world’s diamonds along with other natural materials such as cobalt and copper.
The natural wealth of the country has fueled both civil wars and interest from nations far from the African continent.