8 November 2008
On 14 January, the Eastern Daily Press reported a talk given in Norwich, by two Congolese women, about the sexual abuse suffered by women in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) as a result of the continuing wars in that country.
The women's testimony was heartbreaking but it had to be heard and what better year to listen to voices from Africa than 2008: the 60th anniversary of the Declaration of Human Rights. It is easy to forget how lucky we are in this country. On 10th December - the exact anniversary - the Right Worshipful the Lord Mayor of Norwich, Councillor Jeremy Hooke, will sign a bound copy of the Declaration of Human Rights on behalf of the citizens of Norwich, in the presence of 60 invited guests. While celebrating this life-affirming occasion, we may ponder on the fact that being a woman today in the DRC often means having your human rights violated on a daily basis.
There have been some positive initiatives nationally and internationally since that talk in January. For one thing, the United Nations Security Council - of which the UK is a permanent member – unusually got its act together in June and unanimously adopted Resolution 1820, demanding an "immediate and complete halt to acts of sexual violence against civilians in conflict zones". This is a breakthrough after years of refusing to acknowledge that rape and sexual abuse have become weapons of war. UN Special rapporteurs have been instructed to list all reported incidences of rape and sexual violence. The real test will be how universally – and quickly - UN Resolution 1820 will be applied and what measures will be taken against states that fail to adhere to it.
Film buffs will be interested to learn that as well as appearing in the film Burn After Reading, recently shown in Norwich, George Clooney is also a United Nations Messenger for Peace and he has called on the international community to step up its efforts to resolve the worsening conflict in the DRC: "The recent events in the Democratic Republic of Congo are deeply concerning, as is the international community's failure to engage in sustained, robust diplomacy to address the deadly and deteriorating conflict. In the absence of sustained attempts at peacemaking, United Nations peacekeepers have, once again, been thrust into the lead." He added that the DRC "is the site of the deadliest war since the Holocaust. It is time for the world to pay attention."
He is right. The world needs to grasp the true scale of this crisis and not be cajoled into thinking that it is just a local spat between groups of armed militias, which the force of 17,000 UN Peace Keepers currently in the DRC should be well able to sort out. The DRC is as big as Europe. The UN force is scattered throughout the country. Only 5,000 UN peacekeepers are deployed in North Kivu where the fighting is taking place. When the soldiers of the Congolese army fled in disarray at the approach of the rebels, the UN force of just 1,700 stationed in the capital, Goma, was stretched to its limit attempting to protect the million-strong civilian population. So far, the UN's request for reinforcements has fallen on deaf ears. The Security Council will discuss it next month – but women and children are dying today. The European Union may cobble something together… sometime. Meanwhile up to 100,000 people – 60 percent of whom are children – have fled their homes in the past week. The UN World Food Programme is struggling to get together enough food to feed 135,000 in six camps dotted around Goma. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees is trying to locate thousands of displaced people who fled from three camps that were destroyed. Imagine the chaos, the fear, the hunger, the despair – in one of the most minerally-rich countries in the world; a country where women and children have suffered disproportionately from illegal mining and resource-wars lasting decades. Their human rights have been sacrificed on the altars of unregulated multinational greed and the unceasing desire for gold, copper and coltan underpinning our lifestyle.
Today, in London, African women will speak at a seminar entitled Voices of African Women. They will tell their listeners that there will be no peace in the DRC – or elsewhere – without economic justice and that neither can be achieved without women’s participation and empowerment. African women at grassroots level must be heard because only they have the intimate knowledge of their lives and needs – and because they hold the key to the daily survival of families and communities.