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With Its Record of Rape, Don't Send the U.S. Military to the Congo

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On Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's August, 2009 trip to the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), she announced $17 million in new funding in the U.S. Government's contribution to international efforts to prevent and respond to sexual and gender-based violence in the DRC.

The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), the coordinating agency for work on sexual violence in Congo, estimates that 200,000 women and girls have been the victims of sexual violence since 1998. In 2008, UNFPA recorded that nearly 16,000 women and girls had been raped in the Congo. 65 percent of the victims were children, mostly adolescent girls.

The US Agency for International Development (USAID) will implement a $7 million program with medical care, counseling, economic assistance and legal support to 10,000 women and girls in North and South Kivu provinces, the regions most affected by rape and sexual assault.

Another $10 million U.S. contribution will fund new programs in eastern DRC to include equipping women and front-line workers with mobile devices to report abuse and share information of treatment and legal options.

A separate $2.9 million U.S. program will recruit and train female police officers to investigate rape and interview survivors of violence against women.

According to Human Rights Watch, rape in the Congo is increasing. Human Rights Watch visited nine conflict zones since January 2009 and in those zones, rape cases had doubled or tripled compared with last year. In over half of the cases, the victims were gang-raped by at least two or more assailants, and the youngest victim was two years old. Human Rights Watch reports that the cases of men being raped are increasing.

According to figures collected by Human Rights Watch, 65 percent of the new rape cases in North Kivu were perpetrated by Congolese army soldiers.

But, despite the huge number of rapes by soldiers, military courts in eastern Congo convicted only 27 soldiers of crimes of sexual violence during 2008. In 2009, 17 soldiers have been convicted in North Kivu. In July, 2009, the highest-ranking officer convicted to date, Lieutenant Colonel Ndayambaje Kipanga was found guilty of rape by a military court, but he remains at large. No general has been convicted either for his own actions or for failing to control his troops.

In July, 2009, Human Rights Watch published a 56-page report on rape by soldiers titled: "Soldiers Who Rape, Commanders Who Condone" which called on the government of the Democratic Republic of Congo to urgently investigate and prosecute senior army officials allegedly involved or complicit in rampant sexual crimes against women and girls, as part of its efforts to combat sexual violence.

Part of the new U.S. initiative in the DRC includes a baffling addition to U.S. government agencies involved in prevention and response to sexual assault and rape of the women of the Congo--the U.S. military!

According to the State Department's Aug. 12, 2009 fact sheet on the U.S. partnership with the DRC on gender-based violence, the U.S. military's Africa Command (AFRICOM) is sending an assessment team to "determine how to best assist survivors," and provide "sensitivity training on sexual violence and legal seminars that contribute to the professionalization of the Congolese military."

AFRICOM is the U.S. military's newest command and is looking for missions to justify its existence--in this case with new funding available--in rape prevention. The Bush administration more than tripled U.S. assistance to Africa, to about $9 billion annually. U.S. military training for African forces has steadily expanded, and U.S. troops have dug wells, built schools and clinics and have provided medical care as humanitarian assistance.

In the past decade, the U.S. military has created and funded programs in fields that are normally done by other U.S. government agencies. Arguing that the militaries of other countries are key organizations to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS, the U.S. military carved out a major role in the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) program, in HIV/AIDS prevention, treatment, and care, strategic information, human capacity development, and program and policy development in host militaries and civilian communities of 73 countries around the world.

AFRICOM had to reduce its initial goals after African governments refused to provide a location for its headquarters and civilian aid groups protested plans to expand the military's role in economic development in the region.

If the women of the Congo should Google, "U.S. military - sexual assault and rape," I suspect they will decline the offer of assistance from the African Command. 1 in 3 women in the U.S. military are sexually assaulted or raped. Women and girls in countries with U.S. military bases are raped by U.S. military. 8,000 U.S. Marines are being "re-located" from Okinawa in great measure because of citizen activist pressure following the numerous rapes of women and girls there. Prosecution rates in rape cases in the military are abysmal- 8% versus 40% in civilian cases.

In 2008, the US Ambassador to Japan had to fly to Okinawa to give his apologies for the rape of a 14 year old girl by a US Marine. The US military forces on Okinawa had a 3 day stand-down for "reflection."

Secretary of State Clinton's predecessor, Condoleezza Rice, had to express her "regrets" to the Japanese Prime Minister "for the terrible incident that happened in Okinawa... we are concerned for the well-being of the young girl and her family."

The August 10, 2009 Washington Post article "Congo's Rape Epidemic Worsens During U.S.-Backed Military Operation" begins with an alarming statement: "For the women of eastern Congo, a U.S.-backed Congolese military operation meant to save them from abusive rebels has turned an already staggering epidemic of rape has become markedly worse since the January deployment of tens of thousands of poorly trained, poorly paid Congolese soldiers, with people in front-line villages such as this one saying the soldiers are not so much hunting rebels as hunting women."

I think the United States government can find a sufficient number of civilian organizations to assist the women of the Congo. There is no need to jeopardize the women of the Congo with our U.S. military.

The Human Rights Watch report "Soldiers Who Rape, Commanders Who Condone" can apply to our own military. The U.S. military should stop the criminal acts of sexual assault and rape in its own ranks before offering advice to another country's military. The women of the Congo have enough problems!

Ann Wright is a 29 year US Army/Army Reserves veteran who retired as a Colonel and a former US diplomat who resigned in March, 2003 in opposition to the war on Iraq. She served in Nicaragua, Grenada, Somalia, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Sierra Leone, Micronesia and Mongolia. In December, 2001 she was on the small team that reopened the US Embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan. She is the co-author of the book "Dissent: Voices of Conscience." (www.voicesofconscience.com) She has written extensively on sexual assault and rape in the U.S. military.