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Cell Phones Contribute to Rape, War in DRC


"I'm here" -- two little words that sat in the inbox of one of our cell phones as we prepared to write this column.

This particular message came from a friend we met the evening prior. The room was crowded and she wanted to let us know, "I'm here."

Today, it seemed another woman wanted to tell us the same thing.

Her story is a little different. She is a survivor of rape. One so brutal she was torn apart -- both physically and emotionally. The rape also succeeded in tearing apart her family, her village and now her country -- the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Most people don't speak to this woman now. There's a lot of stigma attached to being raped by the soldiers of the rebel army controlling her region. The army is powerful, funded by the sale of minerals like tin, tantalum, tungsten and gold. Minerals that are shipped to Asia, made into electronic goods and sold to us in the form of cell phones.

Today, she sent us a message -- "I'm here."

This woman's story is not unique to her country. In fact, about 1,100 rapes like hers are reported every month with countless more going unheard. Despite the United Nations naming the DRC the most dangerous place on earth to be a woman, little action has been taken to reverse this foreboding moniker.

The conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo is ongoing since 1996. An estimated 5.4 million people have died making it the deadliest conflict since World War II. Sexual violence has become a tool used by the militias to destroy communities.

"What the armies are trying to do is clear the land so they can take the resources," says Tanisha Taitt, producer of V-Day Toronto, a movement to stop violence against women which this year focused on the Congo. "They realize that the land is occupied and the only way to rid of the people is to systematically destroy the families."

This violence is so widespread Médecins Sans Frontiers reported 75 per cent of rape victims they treat are in the Congo. Physically, the women are often subjected to fistula or HIV. Due to stigmatization, the survivors are shunned by their villages leaving them to deal with the emotional trauma alone.

The result is a population ravished by disease and malnourishment. The UN estimates 1.5 million people are internally displaced and 45,000 die each month.

But it doesn't have to be that way.

By all measures, the Congo should be a rich. Its fertile land is ideal for growing and minerals are abundant. But, the displaced population puts the agriculture sector in disarray. And, armies control the extraction of minerals by forcing miners to work in deadly conditions for low wages. The armies then sell their plunder to international buyers with annual profits estimated at $144 million.

Lax international laws make it virtually impossible for consumers to determine where the 40 milligrams of tantalum in their cell phone comes from. While giving up the device isn't a viable option in our interconnected world, we can demand transparency.

In Canada, Bill C-300 demands Canadian-headquartered mining, oil and gas companies adhere to the same human rights and environmental standards in developing countries as they do here. Failure would mean loss of diplomatic support, refusal of government loans and stock dismissal from the Canada Pension Plan. The Congo Conflict Minerals Act calls on the United States to cease activities that fund armed groups and contribute to human rights violations.

Support for these laws are needed as is access to information. Consumers can take action on this by demanding companies trace the supply chain and conduct audits that document the routes taken.

The key is not to stay silent.

The key is to let others know, "I'm here."