Conflict Violence in Congo and Violence Against Women

Earlier I posted a link in my Facebook group to an article about violence against women in the conflict in Congo. Someone objected, quite understandably, to the graphic violence depicted in the accompanying photo. I don’t know how we can resolve the problem of subjecting ourselves and others to triggering and trauma via graphically violent photos and my thinking on this is quite conflicted. Others have objected to the photo elsewhere. For the moment I’m going to leave aside the problem of exposing women’s bodies, and in this case, black women’s bodies, to the sensationalist gaze of onlookers (but feel free to discuss it if you wish) in favour of providing you with a brief history in links related to the horrible situation of women in Congo. But be warned, it’s very difficult to know.

My first exposure to the problem of sexual and physical violence against women in Congo was via this documentary – “The Greatest Silence: Rape in the Congo”. It comes to us via a white USian woman who also suffered traumatic sexual violence herself. I think there is no more difficult piece of film on the planet, though there might be. It affected my ability to sleep for a long time and made me weep more often than I care to remember. Still, I might watch it again. Because I need to know. And I “can” know. It is not the same for everyone. And fyi, there is saving grace in the interviews with women survivors in the community created to help them heal from their psychic wounds after their physical wounds are treated.

The injuries inflicted on women victims of sexual violence by roving soldiers often results in vesicovaginal and rectovaginal fistula for many, rendering them incontinent in many cases and resulting in their rejection by the people of their villages and communities. The film introduces viewers to the work of Dr. Denis Mukwegwe at the Panzi Clinic and the women and men who work with him to repair the bodies and minds of women victims. It’s the hopeful and inspiring part of the film. Some of you might remember that Eve Ensler became involved in consciousness-raising and fundraising for the clinic with her V-Day initiative. There is lots of critique of Ensler’s work and “The Vagina Monologues” and some of it is warranted. In the end I admire her for doing a fucking thing: “To date, the V-Day movement has raised over $100 million; educated millions about the issue of violence against women and the efforts to end it; crafted international educational, media, and PSA campaigns; reopened shelters; and funded over 13,000 community-based anti-violence programs and safe houses in Democratic Republic of Congo, Haiti, Kenya, Egypt, and Iraq.”

Here’s an article that Ensler wrote for Glamour magazine back in 2008 that affected me deeply: “I am going to tell the stories of the patients he saves so that the faceless, generic, raped women of war become Alfonsine and Nadine—women with names and memories and dreams. I am going to ask you to stay with me, to open your hearts, to be as outraged and nauseated as I felt sitting in Panzi Hospital in faraway Bukavu.”

At the tenth anniversary celebration of V-Day in New Orleans in 2008 which honoured the work of Denis Mukwegwe and those who work at the Panzi Clinic and “City of Joy”, the refuge established where women can begin to heal their psychic wounds after they are physically recovered from surgery at the Clinic, Stephen Lewis – who was then Canada’s Ambassador to the UN – gave a speech that I have never forgotten about the UN’s complicity in the violence against women in Congo. It’s impassioned, inspiring … and reveals horrible things that seem almost past resolution. It bears a read or re-read. Lewis’ speech makes me wonder whether the “efforts” of the UN in combatting violence against women isn’t just one giant public relations scam.

UN Resolutions against violence against women specifically in Congo have been hailed widely and then proven useless. In fact, UN “peacekeeping” troops have too often been implicated in incidents of violence themselves – see this and this and this. There’s much more. Just Google.

I think it’s necessary to look at the roots of the conflict in Congo and the complicity of industrialized nations in that conflict due to our ongoing and vampiric requirement for “conflict minerals”. Gold is the biggest source of conflict mineral trade in Congo but next comes coltan, used to produce tantalum which is required for the manufacture of our mobile phones and almost every other electronic device. The presence of minerals mined by greedy ousiders (rich, white, usually Western corporations) has been shown to lead to “the likelihood of weak democratic development, corruption, and civil war”. No one does worse in such countries than women who are oppressed, exploited, maimed and killed by EVERYONE.

There have been attempts to address the rape and pillage caused by the perceived need to produce millions of electronic devices but, again, these often seem to amount to little more than public relations efforts on the part of the tech industry:

“But while major US-registered electronics firms are outwardly pledging to end the use of conflict minerals some of these same firms belong to industry associations that are seeking to water down the disclosure requirements under Dodd-Frank.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the Business Roundtable, and the National Association of Manufacturers have mounted a legal challenge to the obligations, which is being considered by the U.S. Court of Appeals.” (here)

As I write this post on a computer that likely contains coltan and other conflict minerals, I am not unaware of the irony. We are all complicit. I mean no disrespect to those who find the pictures and stories emanating from Congo traumatizing. We all have to take care of ourselves first and foremost before we can address these pressing issues and we have to take care of ourselves while we’re doing it too. But I don’t think we can or should ban the photos or stories or in any way suppress them. I have to at least witness and at best, find something to do about it. Drops in the ocean. But the women of the City of Joy tell me it’s the least I can do and that women will rise up no matter what men do to us.

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