Conflict Minerals and Rape in the Congo

Just in the fiscal 2011 first quarter, apple sold 16.24 million iPhones, recording 86 percent unit growth since the first quarter of the previous year.  Added on to the total of 73.5 million at the fourth fiscal quarter of 2010, the grand total amounts to nearly 90 million iPhones sold since its launch.  Consumers can buy a 16GB iPhone 4 at as low as $199 with a two-year contract.  However, what is less known to current iPhone users and potential customers is that an iPhone, and those that we call smartphones come at a human cost: the cost of the basic rights, liberties, and also lives of those in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Congolese women are those who bear the brunt of the violence fuelled by conflict minerals.  Many tens of thousands of women have suffered “invisible casualties” from armed forces both foreign and Congolese alike through systematic kidnapping, rape, mutilation, slavery, and torture.  In fact, there have been more than 200,000 rapes, that is those that have actually been reported, since war began in the Congo in 1998.  Likewise, eastern Congo has been labeled the rape capital of the world.

The New York Times columnist Nicholas D. Kristof, documents a 9-year-old girl, Chance Tombola, who lost her parents to an extremist Hutu militia along with her two sisters, ages of 6 and 12, who were taken into the forest, presumably to be turned into “wives” of soldiers.  The militia, who are remnants of those who committed the Rwandan genocide, killed her parents in front of her.  Chance had managed to run away, but her nightmare was not over.  Two months later, the same militia, including the soldiers who had killed her parents, burst into her aunt’s house.  They first shot her uncle then sliced his belly and took out his intestines.  They cut his heart out, showed it to the family members, and continued to mutilate his body.  At the same time, six soldiers raped her aunt, and one raped Chance.  Chance and her aunt were left tied up while the soldier took her 14 and 16-year-old cousins into the forest.

Such stories are not uncommon in the Congo where women and girls are mass-gang raped, beaten, enslaved, and sexually abused.  At the same time, civilians are forced to witness such atrocities against their spouses, parents, children, relatives, and friends.  Militia groups also mutilate and kill civilians.  They force children to eat their parents’ flesh or vice-versa.  In addition, they burn down entire villages and take people’s belongings.

However, the stories do not end with just rape or sexual violence.  Rape survivors are faced with stigmatization, rejected and abandoned by their husbands, family, and community.  Young girls like Chance are no longer considered a “marriage candidate.”  According to the article by Amy Ernst, who works with rape victims in the Congo, those who are stigmatized face further thrust down the ladder of poverty.

So the question is what are the motivations of armed groups behind rape and other human atrocities?  According to a report by the United States Institute of Peace, “the sexual and gender-based violence is a tool to subjugate populations, instill fear, curtail movement and economic activity, stigmatize women, undermine community and family structures, contribute to bonding of perpetrators through the common act of rape, and in some cases, deliberately pollute the bloodline of the victimized population.”  Rape and other forms of sexual violence were noted since 1991 in cross-border hostilities, with increasing frequency in 1994 due to regional conflicts stemming from the Rwandan genocide.  However, the dramatic increase in the past decade has its roots in the greed for minerals.  According to the Enough Project, the demand for conflict minerals by international companies such as Thailand-based Thaisarco and the Malaysia Smelting Corporation, the world’s leading tin smelters, feed money into armed militia controlling the mines in the Congo. The money earned in turn is used to buy more weapons and equipment as well as to increase power.

The continuous consumer demand for electronic goods and the company demand for such minerals to manufacture those goods are not only fuelling war in the Congo, but ripping away the dignity of the civilians. As consumers, our role is to change the logic of Congo’s conflict and end the scourge of conflict minerals by demanding transparency and accountability from the world’s largest electronic companies.

For more information on rape as a tool of war, watch The Greatest Silence: Rape in the Congo, an award-winning documentary film of survivor recounts.

By Soyean Ahn

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