Cell Phones and Congo's War Against Women
What in the world could a policy wonk have in common with a movie actress? As it turns out, a lot. Every day we both use electronic devices that wouldn't work without raw materials from a country halfway around the world in central Africa. That country, Congo, has been torn apart by the deadliest war since World War II, where 5.4 million have perished. Its war is fueled by our inexhaustible thirst for cell phones, laptops, video games, digital recorders and other products that owe their existence to Congo's contribution to the world's mineral supply.
Remember when we learned the periodic table of elements? Three of the minerals - tantalite, tungsten and tin - are indispensable to the proper functioning of much of our electronics industry, and Congo has a good percentage of the world's supply of all three. The upshot is that feuding militias and a failed government have led to one of the highest death rates in the world, where an estimated 1,500 people die per day of war-related causes.
Congo is a country that has been raided, looted and raped for the past century and a half because of its vast natural resource wealth. Kings, corporations and countries have swooped into the Congo to steal whatever they could, leaving behind a shattered state and deeply divided communities. The latest chapter has seen the neighboring country of Rwanda in direct confrontation with Congo over the remnants of the militia that perpetrated Rwanda's genocide 14 years ago. These forces have taken up residence in Congo and are supported at times by the Congolese government. In response, Rwanda supports Congo's rebels. But at the root of all this is the scramble for resources, in which Rwanda and Congo support their rebels of choice and benefit from the minerals extracted from the areas they control.
So even though the issue we have in common is our use of products dependent on the Congo's resources, the issue that really unites us is that the Congo - with the highest rates of sexual violence globally - has become the world's most dangerous place to be a woman or a girl. This is not the first time that armies or militias have used rape as a weapon of war. But what appears to set Congo apart is the frequency of sexual assault, as well as its graphic nature. The militias in the Congo are perfecting this tool of war in a manner never seen before. The effectiveness of deploying sexual violence as a tactic of war is unquestioned. Competing forces rape in order to permanently drive communities out of contested areas.. Women are so traumatized by gang rapes and other depredations that they never want to return to their homes, too afraid to re-live their experiences. And as long as the perpetrators pay no price for their heinous crimes, there is no incentive to stop. In fact, impunity and inaction leads the militias to intensify their attacks.
That's where we come in. As we use our cell phones, computers, iPods and video games every day, we are benefiting from Congo's natural wealth. We need to stand up for the women of the Congo and let our elected officials know that we want to see an end to that violence. We need to let the electronics companies that we all buy our products from know that it matters to us where they get the raw materials that run their devices.
On Jan. 20, a new U.S. president will be sworn in. His inauguration is wildly anticipated by Africans, including those in Congo. President-elect Barack Obama will have the chance to help rectify one of the world's most egregious injustices by making the end of the Congo's war one of his policy objectives. High-level American involvement can help catalyze efforts toward peace in that shattered country.
But a president's attention won't be enough. Because of our demand for PlayStations, iPods, and BlackBerrys, we will have to use our considerable market muscle to demand from companies like Apple, Nokia, Hewlett-Packard and Nintendo that their products do not contain "conflict minerals." This will require them to change their procurement practices and ask far more questions about where their components are from.
This is not impossible. Remember the film "Blood Diamond"? A decade ago, Sierra Leone was a country in turmoil, ripped apart by battles over control of the diamond mines. Today, Sierra Leone is a functioning democracy completely at peace. The horrors there led the world to get serious about stopping them. We need to do the same for Congo, and fast. For the sake of Congo's women and girls, Congo needs us now.
© 2009 The San Francisco Chronicle