Congo's Forgotten Sexual Genocide

In the autumn of 2007, the New York Times, CNN, The Washington Post and Glamour Magazine ran articles detailing sexual genocide in the Republic of Congo following a report released by the United Nations. Each account lamented the intensity and frequency of sexual violence in Congo, which the U.N. had designated as "the worst in the world." Personal accounts of victims -- describing public gang rape, genital mutilation involving bayonets, chunks of wood and melting rubber, and forced rape by family members -- were revealed to the world by these popular news sources.

Nearly four years later, the mass rape of women and children in Congo has not only persisted, it has exacerbated. In May, the American Journal of Public Health reported roughly 48 rapes occur every hour in Congo -- and this is considered to be a conservative estimate. Rape was once used as a weapon of terror to destroy communities. However, the people of Congo's prolonged and constant exposure to the heinous act has normalized the crime. Rape is now used as a simple assertion of authority and control not just by those in the armed forces or in positions of power, but by neighbors, friends and even family members.

Sadly, sexual violence has become the core military strategy in conflicts around the world, including Burma, Colombia and the Sudan.

This is not to say that no efforts have been made to raise awareness and incite change in Congo. In September of 2009, Secretary of State Hilary Clinton oversaw the adoption of the U.N. Security Council Resolution of 1888 to pinpoint efforts to protect women from sexual violence in warzones. Numerous studies have been published that illuminate the deplorable, unthinkable statistics regarding rape in Congo. But the severity of this issue cannot be communicated in cold, harsh numbers printed in bold in a newspaper. The rape of women and children in Congo as a weapon of terror must be viewed as personal to each of us in order to form the building blocks of change. We simply must re-humanize its victims in order to help them.

Two crucial tactics may be highlighted for combating sexual violence in Congo. It is not enough to spread the word, as was done in 2007 by news sources. Real, finite steps have to be taken to alleviate the sexual abuse of women and children in Congo:

  1. We must call on President Obama to appoint a Special Envoy to Congo. A Special Envoy can work specifically to implement a system to report violence, rape, abduction, invasion and violation of both local and international law. A Special Envoy could ensure democracy and fairness in the upcoming 2011 elections on Congo. A Special Envoy could lead Congress in encouraging fundamental human rights in Congo. The possibilities of what this position could do to combat sexual violence are weighted and impactful. All we need to do is demand it.
  2. We must tell those who manufacture the products we consume that we demand conflict-free equipment. Sexual violence fuels Congo's conflict mineral trade, which in turn supplies the iPhones, Blackberries, Androids and laptops we use day-in and day-out. Demanding and purchasing conflict-free products is a tangible and measurable way to promote change in Congo.

The author of this post usually writes about direct violations of religious freedom around the world, and how public policy can affect these abuses. In the case of Congo, before we discuss the right to pray, we must address the right to simply exist without the constant looming threat of sexual violence. We must re-humanize these women and children, and then work to guarantee the basic, inalienable rights they are granted as human beings.