09/07/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Secretary Clinton Visits the Most Dangerous Place To Be a Woman

While her husband's trip to North Korea to release two American women journalists has recently dominated headlines, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton takes on a mission that has the potential to save countless women's lives. As part of her seven nation tour of Africa, Mrs. Clinton travels on Tuesday to the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of the Congo to bring international attention to the plight of women there.

The Congo has one of the most spectacular landscapes in the world, but more than a decade of raging conflict has ravaged this lush and fragile country in the heart of Africa. The situation there is one of the most severe and under-reported humanitarian crises of our time, claiming over five million lives and pushing nearly 2 million people into massive displacement camps. The women and girls in eastern Congo have paid a particularly high price. Rape of women and girls, some as young as five years old, happens with impunity, often by men in uniform. No wonder it is considered by many to be the most dangerous place on earth to be a woman. Women are particularly at risk when they leave the camps daily to gather much needed firewood where groups of marauding men and soldiers lurk around the periphery. More than a quarter of the women in this area have been victims of or are witnesses to sexual violence.

I recently traveled to the region and met a 34-year old mother of four named Beatrice. Beatrice had lost her husband during the conflict. Her younger sister had been raped, and Beatrice herself has barely escaped attacks several times outside the camp. Yet she and her sisters still leave the camp for firewood.

Congolese women must live under such perilous circumstances everyday. The more displaced families cram into the camps -- all of them in need of wood for light, heat and fuel -- the more pressure they put on Congo's heavily deforested land. And the greater the risks for the women who must travel even further away each time just to cook their next meal. Because of the dangers, Beatrice doesn't allow her children to help her gather the wood, but that means she needs to leave the camp more frequently.

International non-government agencies in the camps are struggling with the enormous problems of the displaced, but they are also making an important difference in people's lives.

For example, to help people like Beatrice, Mercy Corps offers food, clean drinking water, latrines and other emergency relief supplies. One innovative form of our assistance comes in the form of a fuel efficient stove. The stove is made up of mixture of not much more than sand, clay, brick and a steel bowl. These simple, biodegradable and locally available materials are all it takes to create a stove that reduces the use of wood by a stunning 75%.

Although its primary role is to slow the rate of deforestation and reduce carbon emissions, this humble fuel-efficient stove has tremendous benefits for women. First of all, it means they only have to leave the camps once or twice a week for firewood, which significantly reduces their burden and their exposure to attack. Moreover, women can be trained to make and sell the stoves in the local markets for much-needed income.

Lastly, these stoves have generated some $160,000 worth of credits in the carbon market from the reduction in carbon emissions. Mercy Corps uses the proceeds to teach women farming and other vocational skills, as well as offer micro-finance services.

While Mercy Corps and other aid agencies work hard everyday to improve lives in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, our work is just a small part of a much larger effort needed in aid and security policy.

The Congolese government, the United Nations peacekeeping force, called MONUC, and the international community, must all do their part to stem the tide of violence against women. The Congolese government must prosecute rape and sexual violence and rout out members of their own police and army if they have been convicted of such a crime, even if they are high ranking military officers. The UN peacekeepers must have a clear and visible presence near displaced communities. They must also be willing to use force to protect civilians, a key element of their mandate. The US and other countries that rely on Congo's vast natural resources need to understand that an investment in economic development in eastern Congo gives men and young boys an alternative to war and plundering.

Mrs. Clinton's courageous show of support on this visit needs to be followed up with more aid resources as well as tough and ongoing pressure for greater security and accountability.