Congo: Clinton Announces $17M To Help Rape Victims, A First Step Toward Breaking Cycle Of Pain And War

The current attention on the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, thanks to the historic visit to Goma by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, makes me think of Xavier.

When I met him in January 2002 in a center for the demobilization of child soldiers in the eastern DRC, he said he was 15 years old. The rebels with whom he had fought still held the area, and he feared being abducted back into the army. He told me that he had been fighting to help get rid of the interhamwe, the Hutu militia that had been responsible for the genocide in Rwanda. Two soldiers from the Rwandan government-backed army that he'd fought with sat in a truck down the road from the center, noting who came and who went. It would be easy enough to press Xavier back into service once he left. Xavier didn't like fighting, and he suffered terribly from nightmares and guilt. "Because of the things I did to women," he said.

Xavier, with his scuffed bony knees poking from his tattered shorts, had been a rapist. The militia that forced him to rape destroyed the lives of his victims, of their community, and of Xavier himself. Rape in war has fallout like a nuclear blast.

Xavier's an adult now, all these years later, and I don't know what's become of him. Sadly, his world has changed very little. The interhamwe, reborn as the the FDLR militia, still terrorize the countryside, and a US-backed joint military operation between Rwanda, Uganda, and the government of the DRC has displaced thousands since July, and over 500,000 since it began last January. Against this backdrop, sexual violence has become a weapon of war, used to break apart communities and to gain control of mineral rich areas. Those minerals are used to make a variety of popular consumer electronics, including cell-phones.

The world in which I left Xavier in 2002 is the world in which a new group of young men and women are coming of age as victims and perpetrators, all for the benefit of a corrupt few, some of whom still wield enormous power in the government of the Congo.

Secretary Clinton wants to break this cycle.

Speaking from war-ravaged Goma today, she announced a $17 million dollar plan to assist survivors of sexual violence. According to the New York Times, she said:

"the American government would help train gynecologists, supply rape victims with video cameras to document violence and dispatch military engineers to help train Congolese police officers to crack down on rapists."

Additionally, she pressed President Kabila to prosecute five senior members of the military who have been accused of rape.

This is a good start, but until the causes of the conflict are addressed, it's a drop in the bucket. More gynecologists certainly need training to deal with the toll, both physical and psychological that rape takes on survivors, and video cameras might help with eventual prosecutions if the footage can find its way into the right hands. Empowering women to document and report the crimes is an essential part of ending impunity in the DRC. Mobile technology could also be of great help, especially now that high speed internet is expanding across the continent.

But a real change in the political climate is needed if things are going to change for the citizens of the eastern Congo. The state actors--Rwanda, Uganda, and the army of the DRC itself--must be pressured to take responsibility for the actions of their soldiers and officers or face real consequences. Smuggling of illicit minerals into Rwanda must stop. Payment must reach the soldiers on the front lines so that they are less tempted to loot. MONUC, the UN Peacekeeping force for the Congo, must be given the resources it needs to accomplish its civilian protection mandate. And electronics manufacturers must work with governments to end the trade in illicit conflict minerals, the way the trade in Blood Diamonds from Sierra Leone was squashed through coordinate international efforts.

The war in Congo, brutal though it is, is not fought for no reason. A complex array of actors with various goals and allegiances are vying for influence, control, and for power. But the fuel feeding the conflict is wealth, and much of it comes from the illicit trade in Congo's natural resources.

The Secretary of State can and should lead a campaign to penalize those who profit from the Congo's tragedy and she can strengthen mechanisms to disrupt this supply chain. $17 million for rape survivors will be followed by another $17 million and another and another unless the cycle can be broken with a real show of political will.

Secretary Clinton has taken a first step toward mustering that will. As she said in Goma, she doesn't have "a magic wand," but she does have one hell of a pulpit.

The rest of us must demand that she continue to use it.