KINSHASA, Congo — U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton called Monday for Congolese youth to lead nationwide protests against massive corruption and rampant sexual violence in the country's violence-torn east.
Clinton said she would press officials in the Democratic Republic of Congo to address the issues. But she stressed that domestic outrage at graft and sexual assaults against women and girls was needed to help prod the government into action.
"You are the ones who have to speak out," she told university students in Kinshasa. "Speak out to end the corruption, the violence, the conflict that for too long have eroded the opportunities across this country. Together, you can write a new chapter in Congolese history."
Clinton travels on Tuesday to the eastern city of Goma, the epicenter of horrific rapes and other sexual crimes committed by the military and rebel groups as they fight over the region's vast mineral wealth.
Calling the situation there "truly one of mankind's greatest atrocities," she said the fight against gender-based violence as a weapon of war was just as important as curtailing corruption.
The U.N. has recorded at least 200,000 cases of sexual violence in eastern Congo since conflict erupted in 1996. Although fighting has eased since a 2003 peace deal, the army and rebels continue to attack villages and kill civilians.
More than 5 million have been killed and hundreds of thousands left homeless over the past decade. Brutality is common in rural communities, including gang rapes that have led to unwanted pregnancies, serious injuries and death to tens of thousands of women and girls.
Earlier this month, a leading human rights group demanded that Congo crack down on rampant sexual violence often perpetrated by military generals and other top officers.
Citing U.N. data that show 7,703 cases of sexual violence by the army reported last year, Human Rights Watch said the Congolese authorities have failed to prevent the attacks.
It called on the U.N. Security Council to take "tough measures," including travel bans, and other sanctions against individuals or governments that commit or condone sexual violence in Congo and elsewhere.
Clinton called the statistics "astonishing and horrible" and said "the entire society needs to be speaking out against this. It should be a mark of shame anywhere, in any country."
"We have to speak out against the impunity of those in positions of authority who either commit these crimes or condone it," she said.
She added that the United States would support U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in his call for global action to stop government forces and armed groups from using sexual violence as a tool of warfare.
Clinton spoke to the students alongside Congo native and former NBA star Dikembe Mutombo who has built a new medical center in Kinshasa. The basketball star named the Biamba Marie Mutombo Hospital for his late mother, contributing $19 million of his own money to the project
The pair toured the facility before the university town hall and Clinton lavished praise on Mutombo for his generosity and willingness to help his country. But not all the students appeared impressed by his largesse.
One asked Mutombo why he had not chosen to go into a more lucrative business after retiring from basketball earlier this year.
Mutombo, a one-time medical student, replied softly that he had been inspired to found the facility when his mother died in 1998 because she had not been able to get to a hospital in time for treatment. He urged the students to remain hopeful about their country and their future.
Clinton's Congo stop is the latest in an 11-day journey through Africa to promote development and good governance and underscore the Obama administration's commitment to the world's poorest continent.
She arrived in Congo from Angola, South Africa and Kenya. She will also visit Nigeria, Liberia and Cape Verde.