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The Day Women of the Congo Seized Control of the Internet

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CONGO VIOLENCE GOMA
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It was November 20, 2012, the day rebel militias seized the large town of Goma threatening to ignite more bloodshed and misery in Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). I couldn't stop pacing and shaking. Although I have no relatives there, my sisters were in the path of the advancing rebels.

My sisters, who have become like family, are 200-plus grassroots women leaders who have been using their own homegrown Internet café to report about life in their beautiful war-torn region. That day, they were flooding the wires with their signals of distress. "Please pray for us," their online messages cried. "Enough is enough."

Enough is enough. For the past 16 years, DRC has been the called the most dangerous place in the world for women, and the UN has crudely dubbed it the "rape capital of the world." A deadly cauldron of competing rebel groups and corrupt government forces fighting for power and control over natural resources has ravaged local communities, resulting in approximately six million dead. With the recent attack on Goma, the rebel group called M23 broke an uneasy peace agreement that had lasted for nearly six years -- a move that resulted in over 140,000 fleeing the city. Worse, it was a move that could trigger a domino effect of brutal military retaliation with civilians caught in the crossfire. That is -- if the world continues to look away.

Over the last three months, my understanding of this region, which has little to no communications infrastructure, has deepened. I have grown to know and love each woman who shares her story on World Pulse -- an online community platform for women around the world I helped to establish. They are stories of the nightmare conditions faced every day, stories of the rape of natural resources, of the rape of hundreds of thousands of women. I have watched as my Congo sisters have grown bolder, connecting with each other -- sharing intimacies, sharing visions for a way forward.

They call themselves "Mama Shujaa" or "Hero Women." From Bukavu -- just across Lake Kivu from Goma -- they tease each other and fight over 12 computers that take 10 minutes to load one page. "Two butts to one seat," as their leader and trainer Neema Namadamu says. Despite cramped quarters and outdated technology, these Hero Women are using the World Pulse platform to organize, to strategize, to share their messages with the world. Recently, they started to dialogue with the women of Liberia who staged their own revolution and managed to elect a woman president. They are forming connections that have the potential to transform their homeland.

Still, their stories are serious and urgent, detailing the widespread pain of a culture where women are systematically degraded and violated, even in times of relative "peace."

For them, to have unchecked war flare up again is unthinkable. It is the last straw.

With nowhere else to turn, several of the Mama Shujaas banded together -- some of whom three months ago did not even have an email address -- to use technology to launch a global call to world leaders to hear their cries. Through a Change.org petition they are urging women leaders in the White House -- Hillary Clinton, Susan Rice, Valerie Jarrett and Michelle Obama, specifically -- to take immediate action.

"We don't want to point fingers; we want solutions," they say. Their request? The immediate appointment of a special presidential envoy to work with the African Union and United Nations. And they demand that local women have a seat at the negotiating table.

"Only through a mediation of this level can we hope to establish resolution among the numerous states, rebel armies, and special interests who have long fueled this conflict and humanitarian crisis," they insist.

But the petition has become a catalyst for something much bigger. Now, as a result of their global and local networking, the Hero Women are at work developing a holistic National Action Plan, which they say is designed "to heal our hearts, our land and our country." Their budding plan includes telecommunication networks, eco-tourism, improved roads, farm and ranch management, distributed solar systems, clean water and sanitation systems, health clinics and educational infrastructure through emerging technologies.

"This is not only about sustainability but about regeneration," says Neema Namadamu. "After all, we are the mothers of this great nation. And I believe in miracles!"

The untapped leadership potential of the women in the Congo to lead peace and development is staggering. We must support this emerging vocal uprising. If there is to be any hope for the future of the Congo, the world must wake up and listen to these women who have broken through suffocating radio silence to have discovered not only their voices, but the means of transmission. After listening to their solutions, we must invest hard resources and back them all the way. Only with this level of partnership will we be capable of securing the "miracle solution" the grassroots Hero Women -- and many other brave women of the Congo -- are kicking and screaming for.

Show your support to women in the Congo and let them know that the world will not remain silent through their devastation. Sign the petition.