My interest is in conflict resolution, and when I can, I volunteer my skills as an analyst and writer to help bloody circumstances in Democratic Republic of Congo. I've been writing about it a lot lately, because conflict minerals are getting some action in congress.
This is an EcoJustice issue because mineral rights are at the root of this horrible violence. And it's more than a regional war. It is a looming climate threat. Many ecology groups work to stop the conflict; the Dian Fossey Foundation was one of the first. The heart of Africa's ecology lives in the Congo basin, and it is threatened by the instability. Our industry empowers the warlords that destablize the country. As we put wealth and technology into their hands, their power to plunder increases.
But the violence and suffering does not make the whole story. There is hope and grassroots action taking the country to a new place. One of the groups behind this excellent work is my favorite organization, HEAL Africa.
If you are sensitive to violent imagery, tread lightly or skip to the action items below.
Last Friday, I attended the opening performance of Ruined, which is a play set around sexual violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo. It is set in a bar and brothel, where the Mama takes on a young woman who has been maimed by a group of armed men; the girl works as a barmaid.
I went to the opening because HEAL Africa gave a presentation after the performance. The term "ruined," which is sometimes translated as "destroyed", refers to a woman with traumatic gynecologic fistula -- mutilation of the tissue between the sex organs, bladder, and bowels. HEAL Africa specializes in treating the victims of sexual violence who suffer these injuries.
I've had something in my craw ever since.
When I was listening to the questions and comments that came from the audience, it struck me that the lens they used was too American, too ethnocentric. The bulk of questions and comments were not about understanding the conflict or what we could do to help; they were about how the women should get abortions, and how to keep a rape victim from being forced to give birth to her rapist's child. Abortion is strenuously forbidden in all contexts in the DRC, so that made for difficult discussion. And while it is true that forcing a woman to carry and raise the child of a rape is unspeakably cruel, that discussion meant that the audience missed the larger reality raised in the play: the point of this particular kind of rape is to render the woman sterile.
In Congo, a woman's traditional value is based largely on her ability to bear children. While rape is used in many contexts, these rapes are a form of terrorism. A woman who suffers these injuries, if she survives, probably cannot bear children. If she can keep it secret, she will, but usually her bladder or bowels or both are open so she is incontinent and carries a stench that keeps her from living amongst the people in her village. She becomes an outcast and has no value in the traditional society. She's left as a symbol of what the militias will do to villages that get in their way.
The senseless yet targeted violence got me thinking about the women we were here to interview and what their stories were. After interviewing the women, I realized it was not just a tool to humiliate the women or denigrate the opposing side's masculinity, it was a way to strip them of their wombs. All but one of the women interviewed were raped by multiple men. The physical damage was so great that they were left without the ability to produce children.
Like many perpetrators of sexual crimes, the men and boys who raped were themselves victims of unspeakable violence. Rebels interested in recruiting more soldiers would invade family homes and make boys kill their parents in order to save themselves. The boys became so damaged that they would join the rebel group that forced them to make this unconscionable choice. When I spoke to Dr. Denis Mukwege, who is the lead doctor in Panzi hospital in Bukavo, the Democratic Republic of Congo, I asked him if he ever met a boy who suffered this experience and was then rehabilitated. He answered no...
But the violence isn't the whole story.
HEAL Africa goes into the villages, finds women who are victims of this crime, and treats their wounds so they can return to their village and live a normal life. They raise the status of women in the community by giving them vocational training and microcredit -- without regard to their history of sexual violence. They create communities with "Strong Women" that have economic value beyond their ability to bear children.
This is a group of Congolese people working to solve their problems. And they do amazing work.
-- A new constitution took effect in the DRC in 2006. HEAL Africa works with the American Bar Association to affect the law to serve the people. There is now a constitutional law that makes rape illegal in all contexts in the DRC. They work with religious and tribal leaders to inform and insure that communities comply with the new law. See actions below.
-- HEAL Africa maintains a network of village "safe houses" that provide prophylactic treatment for HIV/AIDS, access to medical care, counseling, and support for victims of sexual violence and the community more generally. See actions below.
-- HEAL Africa has a Safe Motherhood program that is making a huge impact toward reducing maternal and infant mortality. Primarily, it gives women the opportunity to have prenatal care and to deliver in hospitals or at home with trained personnel.
-- HEAL Africa maintains microcredit and vocational training programs that helps women regardless of their history of sexual violence. Its purpose is to raise women's status in the community, and creates an economy that does not directly depend on mineral and natural resources.Take action today:
HEAL Africa has an enormous impact in serving the surrounding comunity, and creating change toward a long term peace. On July 1, their Heal My People and HIV harm reduction programs got cut to the bone because of a funding crisis at UNICEF. The funding cuts are not because of merit -- they are due to arears in UN dues that many countries owe, including the United States.
Obama has made an effort to step up pace in paying the US arears to the UN, but there is significant opposition by members of congress. Please call members of congress and tell them to bring our UN dues current. Tell them why. The US currently owes the UN $1.3 billion dollars. One fistula surgery at HEAL Africa costs $500, including transporatation, room and board.
Do what you can to push back right-wing, anti-UN propoganda.
Raise consciousness. Nicholas Kristof has a list of things HEAL Africa wants you to do -- and none of them involve digging into your pockets.
Write to the companies that make your electronic devices, and encourage them to boycott blood minerals, sign the Conflict Minerals Pledge and offer certification that their products are blood mineral-free.
If you can, donate to HEAL Africa's general fund to help support their community projects.
Find this map at Mongabay. The Congo River is the Earth's second largest river by volume. The Congo Basin contains 70% of the African continent's plant cover and 18% of the Earth's tropical rainforest. It is home to 600 tree species and 10,000 animal species.
About the EcoJustice Africa series: Since the colonial period, empires have plundered, drilled, and mined the African continent with patent disregard for the dignity, living conditions, and human rights of native populations. Today, Africa suffers from severe deforestation and drought, erosion, famine, and disease: UNEP describes the continent as one of the region's most vulnerable to the ravages of climate change. This essay is the part of a series by the Daily Kos EcoJustice Team on environmental injustice in Africa.
EcoJustice hosts on Monday evenings at 7PM PDT.
The "Ruined" photo posted with permission from Brian Warling of Warling Studios.