The Democratic Republic of Congo: Understanding the Conflict
This year in school, I'm taking a really amazing English elective called Gender, Culture, Power (SURPRISE! It's taught by the same awesome teacher who handed me Jessica Valenti's Full Frontal Feminism). Basically, some of the coolest, smartest, classiest girls (and one brave guy) get together almost every day to discuss gender...culture...and power. It's bliss. And while we've had our fun dissecting everything from KFC advertisements to the Handmaid's Tale thus far, we just embarked on a far more serious, yet completely enthralling, topic: the conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
My class researched the conflict, and here's a rundown of what we found:
History: In 1960, the DRC became independent of Belgium, which had colonized the African country in 1877. Soon after, violence broke out between different factions of the DRC and Belgium. The United States backed the rebel leader of the DRC, Mobutu, as a guise to prevent communism (Mobutu threatened to go the USSR) but really, they were just interested in Congo's natural resources. Mobutu became president in 1970, and despite some violence (minor in comparison to the current situation) remained president through the 1997, when internal revolt began and a new president (Kabila) was instated. In 1999 the country was divided into 3 sections: one controlled by Uganda, one controlled by Rwanda and one controlled by Kabila. Kabila was replaced by his son in 2001, who did not oppose democracy like his father. A constitution was ratified in 2006, but factional fighting broke out in protest. In 2007, the rebel army began to gain power and in 2009 the Hutu militia re-emerged, escalating violence to an all time high, which continues today.
The Natural Resources (Conflict Minerals): Conflict minerals, or minerals such as tin, tungsten, tantalum and coltan are minerals that are very difficult to find in other geographical areas, yet are plentiful in the Congo. They are a huge source of revenue, and much of the rebel groups in the Congo’s fighting can be traced back to desire of control of the mines. But in order to control these mines, these militia groups resort to murder and rape with devastating frequency. Also, these minerals are found in electronic devices like digital cameras, cell phones, lap tops and other devices we use every day.
These minerals have had a devastating effect on the conflict in the Congo. The conflict minerals cause a vicious cycle. Rebel groups in control of the mines, and therefore the mineral trade, exact bribes and/or taxes, and draw the majority of their profit primarily from member states of the European Union. The money raised is then used to buy weapons for the rebel groups, which are in turn used to commit atrocities against millions of innocent people, including “mass murder, rape, torture and forced recruitment.” Without the conflict mineral trade, the rebel groups would be less-well armed and generally less supported monetarily, making all of their actions far more difficult to execute.
Currently, selling coltan is not illegal and it is an industry that produces about $6 billion in revenue per year. The United States has taken steps towards stopping this trade – over the summer, Obama signed legislation that would require U.S. companies to disclose whether or not their products contain conflict minerals. However, this industry is still incredibly overbearing and a major source of the conflict.
Rape as a Weapon of War: Rape is used as a war tactic in the Congo, as an attempt to weaken communities and express power. Women who are raped, however, are generally ostracized from their family/community. Not only is this an obvious moral and humanitarian issue, but a health issue as well: the rapes themselves are so violent that women often need serious medical attention after the attack, and the rapes often result in the spread of HIV/AIDS. Yet medical attention is not easy to obtain, and women often have to live with disease and injury as a result.
It can be hard to really wrap our heads around what life must be like for Congolese women. As I sit here, typing away on my laptop with a bounty of snacks surrounding me that one would rationally assume an entire high school football team would struggle to devour (never underestimate a stressed out teen girl, mkay?) I know the innate privilege I was born with blinds me to being able to fully realize the hell so many women have gone through and continue to go through. And yet I know all of us want to help, want to see this end, without taking on that "Western Savior" role, where we with our "superior civilization" go and save everybody else.
Even though we are teens, which may seem like a limiting factor, we are still pretty powerful and have the ability to help. There are so many organizations doing amazing work that need support. Women for Women International, an organization whose founder, Zainab Salbi, has been featured on the FBomb before, is doing some great work in the DRC and they have a ton of ways anybody can get involved, ranging from donating to sending an e-card to shopping (seriously). Also, reading the play Ruined by Lynn Nottage is just an incredible read in addition to being a great way to truly get into the minds of Congolese women, many of whom are rape survivors.
We may be young, but nobody - including us - should underestimate our ability to help. And believe me, the power of educating ourselves and others is no small feat.
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