Imagine your 15-year-old daughter walking to the corner store to get a carton of milk. She has walked along this street nearly every day growing up. But this afternoon on the way home, a group of men pull her into the bushes. Each man takes a turn raping her, the last one with the barrel of his AK-47. Left bleeding and unable to walk, she takes shelter in the nearby forest. Why doesn’t she go home, you ask? She can’t. The rape is considered her fault. She is now disowned by her family. After surviving weeks on berries and sugar cane she is discovered by a man who thought he smelled a rotting corpse. But the stench is the result of a rape so brutal that the passageway between her vagina and anus broke down, becoming one gaping wound.
In the Democratic Republic of Congo, which I visited in August, horrific stories like this are happening on a daily basis. Armed militias and the Congolese army are waging a war that spans more than a decade, fueled in large part by the trade in minerals that are used in cell phones, laptops and digital cameras. At a dingy hospital in the town of Goma, a counselor told me that three women a day come to the hospital to report being raped and receive treatment. According to an International Rescue Committee survey, 5.4 million people have died because of the conflict and humanitarian crisis — and that often-cited figure is from 2007.
A simple, baseline expectation of security — the feeling that “everything will work out” that we in the United States inherently, optimistically turn to when a situation looks threatening — doesn’t even apply in Congo. There is no 911 to call if a group of drunken soldiers or militia burst through your front door, or you hear them breaking into your neighbor’s home. There is no rape hotline or Planned Parenthood and barely a semblance of a justice system to turn to if your grandmother, mother, father, sister, brother, daughter or infant is raped.
Mass atrocities are taking place all over the world, all the time; human-rights abuses occur here in our own country. So why focus on Congo? Because even apart from the unacceptable brutality endured by women and the scale — the deadliest conflict since World War II — Congo’s war is an accountability issue for all of us. As consumers of the electronics products each and every one of us use on a daily basis which contain the valuable minerals that pay for the guns so the militia members can continue fighting, we have an obligation to follow up and ensure that our purchases are not perpetuating the conflict.
Last year, the U.S. Congress passed landmark legislation — part of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act — that will require U.S. companies involved in the minerals trade in eastern Congo to publicly declare the steps they are taking to ensure their business does not support the armed groups who profit from Congo’s insecurity. Based on this public reporting, consumers and investors will be able to choose to give their business to companies that are conscientious about working with conflict-free mines.
(PHOTOS: Justice for Rape Victims in the Congo)
The conflict minerals legislation adopted by Congress is part of the solution. But powerful industry associations and their lobbyists are trying to weaken the regulations the bill called for, suddenly, disingenuously presenting themselves as advocates for the Congolese people. The final regulations will likely be released in December. Some industry associations and a handful of companies are likely to take their battle to the courts in an effort to block the law from taking effect.
In truth, corruption and a fight for power at every level is what underpins this conflict. It is what motivates a mining executive to say that he is working for the well-being of his miners, who labor under backbreaking conditions to make around $5 a week. Or the army commander who charges a “tax” at a roadblock manned by heavily armed men. Or the soldier or militia fighter who violently rape a woman to usurp her power, knowing that women are the centerpiece of society.
Two years, almost to the day, of my visit to eastern Congo, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited one of the same towns. She met many of the same people and was moved by some of the same stories. Nearly everyone I met asked me to take a message back to “Mama Clinton,” to urge her to make good on her promise to bring high-level U.S. attention to the crisis in Congo. With the conflict minerals legislation — our best hope for sparking change in the course of this long war — at risk of being derailed, now is the time.