Hunger, suffering, religious oppression, living in fear of ethnic cleansing and deprivation of basic human rights are unfamiliar territory in America. Praying for a safe refugee camp to appear on the horizon after walking for days seems little more than a nightmare. Dusty, arid lands and thousands of faces melt together in a portrait of incalculable need.
Nowhere is the suffering more acute than Congo. Dubbed the 'worst place in the world to be a woman,' the war-torn country is an epicenter of human suffering. The American Journal of Public Health published a study in May quantifying the moniker. Among girls and women aged 15-49, approximately 1,152 are brutally raped every day. That works out to 48 rapes per hour. My reaction was visceral, even though I knew the level of Sexual and Gender Based violence was astronomic, higher than at any time in recorded history. To digest the information, I touched base with Lisa Shannon, author of A Thousand Sisters. She was on a seven day hunger strike to show unity and support for our Sisters there.
A couple of days later, I committed to a seven day hunger strike immediately following the completion of Lisa's effort. My faith allowed it, my doctor gave strict guidance, and my will was strong. At 12:00AM on May 21, 2011 I began a hunger strike to show solidarity with the women of Congo. As a lifelong committed Republican, a hunger strike ranked number one on the list of "things I will never do." But life brings with it surprises and revelations. Ultimately, I completed a 40 day hunger strike. During this time approximately 46,080 women and girls were raped in Congo.
My decision to undertake this effort was about more than sisterhood, it was an expulsion of pain. The genesis of my affection for Africa's women and children is about gratitude for my freedom. But also the duty preserving freedom requires. At age 17, I was held against my will for six days and raped repeatedly by several young men. A strong survival instinct made it possible for me to remain calm, identify my location and convince one of my captors to give me access to a bathroom while the others were gone. I called my father and he rescued me. I never looked back. No police. No rape kit. I just wanted my life back. To be back in my parents' loving and safe home. The hunger strike helped me forgive myself for whatever harm may have come from my silence. Our Sisters in Congo cannot pick up the phone and wait for rescue. No such safety net exists there.
Rape victims are a silent sisterhood. When you have been dehumanized by another being totally possessed by evil, the experience is unimaginable. Akin to witnessing an eclipse of good, where it disappears into darkness and you wait, hoping for salvation and redemption. In Congo, as in Rwanda before it, rape is a tool of genocide. It is used systematically to paralyze and enslave entire villages or populations. Combined with the threat of murder or auto-cannibalism, the scale of violence in Congo is devastating.
Rape and slavery fuel Congo's conflict mineral trade worth hundreds of millions of dollars each year. Ninety-five percent of cobalt, which powers electric cars, comes from Congo. Tin, tantalum, tungsten, gold and copper are in virtually every electronic device. The cost to certify our Androids, iPhones, Blackberries and laptops "conflict-free" would be one penny per product. To upgrade all the devices in my house, it would cost a nickel. Please Intel, Microsoft, Sprint and Cox Communications: take my pennies. Please.
As consumers and citizens, we can tell manufacturers we want conflict free equipment. We can petition our Member of Congress and our Senators to engage with the SEC to begin laying down achievable goals in creating a process for Congo's conflict minerals that mirrors, but improves upon, the Kimberley Process for Blood Diamonds. We can contact the US Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers to engage in a proactive dialogue with NGOs, like the Enough Project, to develop solid policy. We can call on President Barack Obama to appoint, and encourage Republican presidential candidates to commit to the appointment of a Special Envoy to Congo.
A Special Envoy could work with our Allies and the Congolese government to implement a way to report violence, corruption, abductions, slavery, violations of local and international laws, and trafficking. Congo will hold elections in November 2011. The Special Envoy should lead a US Delegation, including Members of Congress, to encourage and work with local officials and NGOs to keep the elections free and fair. Inalienable rights are a sacred trust. As Americans, this is our bedrock value. Export this idea and watch what happens.
A government of, by and for the people must recognize the prescience of our Founding Fathers when they gave us the motto, E Pluribus Unum. Out of many, we are one.