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Senate Subcommittees Hold Hearing on Gender-Based Violence as a Weapon of War

On May 13, the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittees on African Affairs and Human Rights, Democracy, and Global Women’s Issues held a hearing, “Confronting Rape and Other Forms of Violence Against Women in Conflict Zones,” focusing on the Democratic Republic of Congo and Sudan.

African Affairs Subcommittee Chair Russ Feingold (D-WI) said, “Among the many troubling things I have seen and heard during my travels over the last 17 years as a member of this committee, the suffering of women and girls in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo [DRC] stands out. In 1999, I traveled to 10 countries in Africa in an effort to help bring about a resolution to Congo’s ongoing crisis. Nearly a decade later, in the summer of 2007, I traveled to eastern Congo to see firsthand the conditions that have persisted through a decade of conflict and crisis. Millions have died during that decade and millions more have been displaced from their homes. During my most recent trip, I met with women and girls who had been gang-raped and sexually abused, often leaving them with horrific physical and psychological damage. Many of these women had lost their husbands, their homes, and their livelihoods, and yet, against all odds, they refused to give up if only for the sake of their children. The stories I heard in easternCongo are horrifying. Yet even more horrifying is how common such stories have become for women and girls across easternCongo and other conflict zones, including those in Sudan. Rape and other forms of gender-based violence are not just outgrowths of war and its brutality they can also be weapons of war. In the past few years there has been an increased focus on the urgent need to address these brutal tactics whether through UN [United Nations] Security Council resolutions or NGO [nongovernmental organizations] campaigns and the United States has an important role to play in helping to facilitate such initiatives and ensure sound policies are implemented.”

Human Rights, Democracy, and Global Women’s Issues Subcommittee Chair Barbara Boxer (D-CA) said, “Today, we will spotlight Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo in order to examine the brutal sexual violence that women around the globe are subjected to during conflict…Violating a woman in this manner often goes far beyond mutilating her body. It is an effort to destroy families, communities, and entire societies. I keep coming back to a passage from a report issued by Refugees International because I think it captures best what is going on in Darfur, Sudan. Rape, it says, is ‘an integral part of the pattern of violence that the government of Sudan is inflicting upon the targeted ethnic groups in Darfur…The raping of Darfuri women is not sporadic or random, but is inexorably linked to the systematic destruction of their communities.’”

She continued, “In the Democratic Republic of Congo, the magnitude of the problem defies comprehension. Hundreds of thousands of women and children have been raped during the course of a conflict that has spanned the last twelve years. And while the country has made strides toward stability including holding democratic elections the rapes are continuing at a grotesque rate. According to Human Rights Watch, the ‘number of women and girls raped since January has significantly increased in areas of military operations by armed groups and soldiers of the Congolese army.’ I was particularly touched by a quote issued by 71 Congolese women’s organizations about how the sexual violence is impacting their society and their lives.‘We are vulnerable in our fields, in the streets, and even in our own homes. Even our daughters as young as three years old are vulnerable when they are playing with their friends or on their way to school. The nuclear family, the base of our society, no longer exists…There is a crisis of authority and a culture of impunity.’ This must stop. And, colleagues, we must come together across all the lines that normally divide us to end this madness.”

Melanne Verveer, ambassador-at-large for global women’s issues at the U.S. Department of State, said, “Gender-based violence (GBV) as a tool of war is in no way limited to the DRC and Sudan, or in Africa. We’ve seen this in Bosnia, Burma, Sri Lanka, Nepal, and elsewhere. The underlying problems gender inequality and the dehumanization of women are often the same, and our assessment of needs and recommendations would be similar across regions. There is, however, an important difference in scope and intensity. The crisis in DRC is reaching its twelfth year. The scale and enormity of the violence directed at women can scarcely be adequately described. Some 1,100 rapes are being reported each month, with an average of 36 women and children raped every day. Armed perpetrators elements of the Armed Forces of the Democratic Republic of Congo (FARDC), the Congolese National Police, and illegal, non-state armed groups are reportedly responsible for 81 percent of reported cases in conflict zones and 24 percent in non-conflict areas. Women are being attacked solely because they are women, with sexualized torture of unprecedented savagery on both the physical and psychological levels. In addition to these rapes and gang rapes that are happening at the rate of upwards of a thousand a month hundreds of thousands over the duration of the conflict the perpetrators frequently mutilate the women in the course of the attack. The apparent intent is to leave a lasting and inerasable signal to others that the woman has been violated. In the DRC and in many other cultures, this translates into a lifelong public badge of shame.”

She continued, “The culture of impunity must end. As even the most horrific rapes become trivialized and accepted as routine, rates of rape committed by civilians are also increasing. A recent UN Human Rights Integrated Office in the DRC (UNHRO) report concluded that ‘law enforcement personnel and magistrates continue to treat rape and sexual violence in general with a marked lack of seriousness. Consequently, men accused of rape are often granted bail or given relatively light sentences and out-of-court settlements of sexual violence cases are widespread.’ Few cases are reported to the police and fewer still result in prosecution. Of the more than 14,000 rape cases registered in provincial health centers in the DRC between 2005 and 2007, only 287 were taken to trial. The trend toward increasing lawlessness and impunity will not end until respect for the rule of law and for humane conduct is established. Until then, more must be done to identify and punish perpetrators. Police must receive better training; there must be more focus on initiatives to strengthen the rule of law and provide victims with access to justice while offering them protection throughout the judicial process. Protection of women needs to be integrated from the start into our efforts to rebuild civil society in Darfurand the DRC. In Darfur, efforts to involve civil society in the peace process have always made the participation of women a priority. We cannot allow the participation of women to become an afterthought or a separate category, but rather we must make programs for women’s empowerment, girls’ education, shelters, and care for victims of violence mainstreamed into general humanitarian and capacity-building work in this region. These issues should play an important role in our response to any conflict in any country, not just in the DRC and Sudan. These problems are not just women’s issues or African issues, but a humanitarian and burgeoning security crisis, and need to be addressed as such.”

Sen. Feingold asked, “One of the major drivers of the instability in eastern Congo is the dismal state of the security sector itself, which does not protect or provide adequate justice for the civilian population; moreover, many of the Congolese army have been implicated in rape and other forms of gender-based violence. Over the years, the U.S. government has been involved, [as well as] other donors in recent years, [to strengthen] the Congolese security sector. The president requested additional funds in the FY2009 supplemental [as-yet-unnumbered], as well as a substantial increase [in funding forCongo] in his FY2010 budget request. With all this increased support [from the Administration] going to the Congolese army, how are we integrating, analyzing, and addressing gender issues as well as seeking to enhance the accountability of the military?”

Phil Carter, acting assistant secretary of the Bureau of African Affairs at the U.S. Department of State, responded, “The issue…is a structural one. What we’ve also come to realize is that theUnited States alone cannot make an effective reform effort. It has to be [in conjunction with] an international coalition…security-sector transformation has to look beyond elements in the [Congolese] Army, but also to the police and the judicial system itself. Working on one component isn’t sufficient…With regards to the military itself, we have an ongoing commitment to develop a rapid-reaction force, which [entails] significant training on the issues of human rights [and] dealing with gender sensitivity issues.”

Sen. Feingold asked, “There’s a lot of frustration that the U.N. peacekeeping force…has not done enough to protect civilians. The U.N. Security Council authorized 3,000 additional troops, but six months later, those troops have still not arrived inCongo. Is that true, and if so, what’s the hold up?”

Esther Brimmer, assistant secretary of state for international organization affairs at the U.S. Department of State, answered, “They have not yet arrived; they are expected to arrive in early June. Because they’re from several different countries, assembling them has taken additional time, [but we do expect] them to be there by the beginning of next month.”

Sen. Barbara Boxer, citing an Associated Press article, asked, “How is it possible that there are only two doctors in all of Congo, given the scope of the crisis, and how can the U.S. help provide more health care and specialists and surgeons to treat women in the Congo and other countries where women are suffering from fistula and other trauma?”

Ambassador Verveer said, “It’s obviously a very severe problem, and one that requires greater resources. The United States has heretofore provided some resources [and] assistance to medical institutions for fistula repair and other kinds of health services, but it’s obviously nowhere near what is overall required. [It will require] a concerted effort with our allies and with others, and multilateral institutions, to see what we can do to at least turn this immediate suffering around…the longer term consequences will take, obviously, longer to address…We clearly have an obligation on us to do more in terms of our own abilities to do that and [more] in terms of other donors.” She added, “I will personally commit to try to convene the important players in this…so that we can begin to make some progress.”

Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-GA) asked about the administration’s steps for addressing the crisis in Darfur. Mr. Carter responded, “The emphasis has been on trying to bring an end to the actual conflict in Darfur. So the context of our efforts has been…first, addressing the humanitarian situation…[including] trying to restructure the humanitarian infrastructure [that has been] damaged, which has a bearing [on] some of the services for women and children in that region. [We also are working] with the international community to reinvigorate the Doha peace process and bring steps towards a political settlement…so that these fundamental issues of infrastructure resettlement, development issues, [as well as] the question of impunity…but at this stage, the effort with the Khartoum [Sudanese] government has been to stabilize the situation in Darfur, get ourselves in a peace process, and address the humanitarian crisis.”

In the second panel, Eve Ensler, founder of V-Day [a global movement and series of consciousness-raising events to end violence against girls and women] said, “As some of you may know, my play The Vagina Monologues led me into the world of violence against women and girls. Everywhere I traveled with it scores of women lined up to tell me of their rapes, incest, beatings, [and] mutilations. One out of three women on this planet will be raped or beaten in her lifetime…I am here today to tell you that nothing I have heard or seen compares with what is going on in the Democratic Republic of Congo.”

Ms. Ensler continued, “[After my first visit to the DRC] I was unphased by the cynicism and doubt as any new zealot. The world simply hadn’t gotten the necessary information. No world government, no leader, no body of the UN could turn its back, could sit and do nothing when they heard what I had heard, seen what I had seen. In 12 years, 6 million dead Congolese. 1.4 million displaced. Hundreds and thousands of women and girls raped and tortured. Babies as young as six months, women as old as 80, their insides torn asunder. No one could rightly ignore femicide the systematic and planned destruction and annihilation of a female population as a tactic of war to clear villages, pillage mines of their coltan, gold, and tin, and wear away the fabric of Congolese society. No one could turn their back on Beatrice, a lean, pretty woman who was found in the forest after a soldier shot a gun in her vagina. She now has tubes instead of organs. Or Lumo who was raped by over 50 men in the course of one day and has had nine operations and still has fistula; or Honorata who was taken by militia and tied to a wheel upside down then was raped and raped and over by so many soldiers she lost count they called her “the queen”; or Sowadi who watched the soldiers choke and smash the skulls of her children, then was forced to watch her best friend’s child cut from her pregnant belly, and after, they were forced to eat the dead, cooked baby or die. It goes on and on. Women who were being raped as they watched their husbands being slaughtered, women watching their daughters being raped, sons being forced to rape their sisters and mothers, husbands watching their wives being raped. Sons being raped. All this happening for 12 years; all this happening right now as I speak…”

She added, “There is something sinister afoot. I was there inBosnia during the war in 1994 when it was discovered that there were rape camps and that thousands of women were being raped as a strategy of war. I watched the rapid response of the western world community. After all, these were white women inEurope being raped. Within two years, there was adequate intervention. It has been 12 years in the DRC. Why?…I have felt a murderous lethargy in the halls of power. I have heard members of the European Parliament say they had no idea it was even happening. I have been in situation after situation where the serving of protocol trumps the saving of human lives. I have heard empty promises and straight out lies. I have waited as those that have the power to change this situation work through bureaucracy and hierarchies so that months and months pass and nothing is ever done…Let the Congo be where we ended femicide, the trend that is madly eviscerating this planet from the floggings in Pakistan, the new rape laws in Afghanistan, the ongoing rapes in Haiti, Darfur, Zimbabwe, the daily battering, incest, harassing, trafficking, enslaving, genital cutting, and honor killing. Let the Congo be the place where women were finally cherished and life affirmed, where the humiliation and subjugation ended, where women took their rightful agency over their bodies, their land, and their country. Where the U.S. led the world in standing against rape and femicide; where the U.S. stood for women.”

Chouchou Namegabe Nabintu, founder of the South Kivu Women’s Media Association in the DRC, discussed the stories she had heard from women on her radio program: “I met a woman who had five children. They took her into the forest with her five children, and kept them there for several days. As each day passed the rebels killed one of her children and forced her to eat her child’s flesh. She begged to be killed, but they refused and said, ‘No, we can’t give you a good death.’ Last month, after the joint operation between the Congolese army and the Rwandese army to break down the FDLR [Forces Démocratiques de Libération du Rwanda, or Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda] ended, in their running away, the FDLR raped more women. Our journalists were told that after they raped the women, they put fuel in their vaginas and set them on fire, and then extinguished the fire. This was done not to kill them, but to let them suffer. There were many other horrible atrocities.”

Ms. Nabintu continued, “The women ask, ‘WHY?’ Why such atrocities? Why do they fight their war on women’s bodies? It is because there is a plan to put fear into the community through the woman, because she is the heart of the community. When she is pushed down, the whole community follows. We also ask, Why the silence of the developed countries? When a gorilla is killed in the mountains, there is an outcry, and people mobilize great resources to protect the animals. Yet more than five hundred thousand women have been raped, and there is silence. After all of this you will make memorials and say ‘Never Again.’ But we don’t need commemorations; we want you to act now.”

Ms. Nabintu outlined six actions to be fulfilled in order to achieve peace in the DRC, including: U.S. “involvement to station the U.N. peacekeepers not only in the cities and towns to protect business, but also in rural areas where they can actually protect the women; pressure on “the Rwandan government to accept the [FDLR’s] return and to begin dialogue with the rebels, so that they stop fighting their war in our country, and on women’s bodies”; “the U.S. to join us in pressuring the Congolese government to stop giving amnesty to rebels who use rape as their war strategy”; “that the American government and U.S. multinational corporations contribute financially to the recovery and healing of the women and the communities, because your economy benefits from the minerals of the Congo”; “help for Congo to strengthen the formal economy in the eastern provinces, and end the profitability of blood minerals”; and “for the U.S. to have an increased presence in the eastern Congo.”

At the conclusion of Ms. Nabintu’s testimony, Sen. Boxer stated, “I think you all of you on the panel have to know that in the Senate, today, the silence on this issue has ended. And in the Senate, today, across party lines, we hear you very clearly, and that we are going to do…some things that you’ve suggested…I’m so ashamed of the human race sometimes, when we get lost. I didn’t do enough in the past, [but] I pledge to you that, I, just this voice, will be heard, and I know that I speak for others on this committee.”

John Prendergast, co-founder of the Enough project [to end genocide and crimes against humanity], stated, “Measures to deal with rape as a weapon of war in isolation will fail and fail miserably. If we truly want to end this scourge we must move from managing conflict symptoms to ending the conflicts themselves. Yet rather than trying to end the conflicts in Congoand Sudan, most international efforts deal with symptoms. We spend billions of dollars a year on humanitarian efforts and peacekeeping, while the root causes of the violence remain inadequately addressed. This is irresponsible and deadly costly in lives lost as well as costly to American taxpayers. How revolutionary would it be to deal with the causes rather than the symptoms? Why can’t we focus our policy on ending these wars rather than simply dealing with their consequences? From our meeting with President Obama a few weeks ago at the White House, he clearly understands the importance of such a strategic objective. But will his administration organize structures, personnel and assets to achieve these objectives, or will the pursuit of lasting solutions remain largely rhetorical? And will Congress support a sustained interagency effort to end these wars, or will the resources needed to ramp up diplomatic efforts be siphoned off for other ends?”

Likening the “conflict minerals” in the Congo to the “conflict diamonds” in Sierra Leone, Mr. Prendergast explained, “Sexual violence in Congo is often fueled by militias and armies warring over “conflict minerals,” the ores that produce tin, tungsten, and tantalum what we call the “Three Ts” as well as gold. Armed groups from Congo, Rwanda, and Uganda finance themselves through the illicit conflict mineral trade and fight over control of mines and taxation points inside Congo. But the story does not end there. Internal and international business interests move these conflict minerals from Central Africa around the world to countries in East Asia, where they are processed into valuable metals, and then onward into a wide range of electronics products. Consumers in the United States, Europe, and Asia are the ultimate end-users of these conflict minerals, as we inadvertently fuel the war through our purchases of these electronics products. Based on calculations by researchers at Enough, the Three T’s and gold together generate as much as $183 million annually for the armed groups that torment women and girls in eastern Congo. One of the biggest money makers in this trade is the FDLR, a Rwandan militia whose high command includes persons responsible for the Rwandan genocide in 1994. The FDLR and other armed groups force miners to work in desperate, dangerous conditions for an average of one to five dollars a day. Without alternative sources of income, these miners and their families remain virtually enslaved to armed groups and the conflict minerals trade. There is clearly no silver bullet solution to the conflict in eastern Congo. However, if the international community and regional actors work in conjunction with the private sector to align their efforts around the common goal of a revitalized legitimate mineral trade in eastern Congo, long-term efforts could have major impact in resolving the conflict.”

Sen. Boxer asked the panel for recommendations to include in a letter being sent to the Obama Administration on this topic, noting that she was already asking for more medical personnel in the region, a person at the UN designated to follow and discuss “what’s going on with women” worldwide, an increased emphasis on including women in the security and police forces in these regions, as well as additional aid to NGOs on the ground in affected areas. Ms. Ensler requested including an invitation for “some kind of high-profile delegation that could come immediately to the Congo [to] meet with women and really look at the situation on the ground.” She also echoed the need for the inclusion of more women in police forces, as well as the need for “more doctors to be trained in-country…because we want the people of Congo to rule their own destinies.” Ms. Nabintu stated that “the first thing is to work on the real cause [of conflict], which…is the economic war. [The administration also should] pressure Rwanda and Uganda to stop [the atrocities].” Robert Warwick, country director of Southern Sudanat the International Rescue Committee, added, “We need to take a holistic approach to whatever we do,” noting that immediate emergency care should be accompanied by long-term support. He also supported providing “access to justice and the rule of law. We need to improve, and in some cases establish, justice systems in [these] countries…[and] social norms need to change, [along with] awareness raising. What we find is that until there is support, women and girls do not come forward. So [support] services are essential, and they have to be accessible.”

Neimat Ahmadi, Darfuri liason officer at Save Darfur Coalition, also testified.

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