March 18, 2010

Sexual Violence in the DRC: Why Celebrities Don't Help the Cause


The gap between perception and reality on the issue of sexual violence against women here in the Democratic Republic of the Congo is wider than on almost any other topic. Clearly, sexual violence in the Congo is the new "Ethiopia" or the new "Sudan" as the issue has captured the imagination of celebrities, politicians and, increasingly, larger segments of the politically literate populations in Europe and the United States.

For many in the developed world, famine and poverty are too abstract to resonate widely. Rape is different. Women from all backgrounds and socio-economic levels can immediately identify with this issue as it is both a fear and reality for women and girls in every community. Now, increasingly, corporations, politicians and celebrities are recognizing that valuable exposure can be had by connecting themselves with "doing something to help the women of the Congo."

If you are not familiar with some of the popular campaigns to raise awareness in the West, here are a few samples:

Omnipeace: Courtney Cox, Jennifer Anniston and a slew of other Hollywood idols want you to wear t-shirts, bathing suits, and use their credit card to "stamp out violence in the Congo."

Watch Law and Order SVU: This one is a bit tougher to comprehend but here goes. One of the actresses on the hit television series Law & Order contends that watching television (a consumer electronic device incidentally) will encourage people not to use consumer electronic devices that are made from minerals sourced from the Eastern Congo, where the majority of the sexual violence against women occurs.

Eve Ensler, Ben Affleck, Oprah Winfrey, Anderson Cooper; the list of the celebrities who are making the Congo "their issue" goes on and on. While on the surface, raising awareness of this tragically important issue should be praised and even encouraged, important questions should also be raised over who these celebrities are aiming to satisfy: American media consumers or the true victims of rape? The celebrities are packaging up an extremely complicated issue into a nice, easy to digest box.

First, never do they raise the awkward question that we are all complicit in the violence in the Congo because of our insatiable consumption of electronics and other consumer products that depend on the minerals sourced from this part of the world. We are never asked to sacrifice anything. Instead, they call on us to send a pre-written email to 21 of the world's largest electronics manufacturers asking them to stop using minerals, such as coltan, that are mined in the DRC. These minerals, as is widely reported, fund the various factions in the ongoing armed conflict. This here is where the disconnect lies.

Sadly, these celebrities may have good intentions but they are all painfully out of their depth on this issue. It will take significantly more than letter writing campaigns and t-shirts to have any real effect on the warring factions. That said, there is more that can be done at the popular level which, regrettably, few people discuss. Although corporations are largely unresponsive to public pressure, governments are a different story.

Mass letter writing campaigns, sit ins, demonstrations, etc. should be held in Washington, London, Paris and Bonn to pressure the French and German governments into questioning how and why they permit leaders of the war's various factions to live freely in their countries. If the BBC World Service was able to find a handful of commanders living large in Paris and Berlin, then one would hope that the European intelligence agencies would also have an idea as to their whereabouts. The United States has done everything in its power to frustrate Al Qaeda's logistical, financial and operational abilities. It should do the same with the FDLR and other participants in the Congolese conflict. Our leaders and our governments can do something about this today. We choose not to because the political pressure is focused on Apple when it should be directed at Obama, Sarkozy, and Merkel.

Finally, we need to demand more of our governments' international aid efforts on this issue. While tens of millions of dollars are being showered on every kind of SGBV (sexual and gender-based violence) initiative, little of that money is actually traced to any kind of discernible result. The latest evidence of how our tax money is being wasted comes from the Globe and Mail's damning report of the Canada International Development Agency's (CIDA) $15 million GBV effort in the DRC.

Millions of dollars were apparently spent on posters and other printed materials directed at a population that is largely illiterate. Seriously, you can't make this stuff up. Additionally, so few of those funds are spent on anything that will actually help people. Instead they're spent on administrative costs and truly absurd benefit packages for aid workers that include $80,000 SUVs, expensive apartments, satellite television and on and on.

I can tell you from first hand experience here that our governments are failing us in the effort to combat sexual and gender based violence in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Our money is being wasted, and well intentioned but poorly informed celebrities fill the void with misrepresented facts and ineffective campaigns. We can do better. In upcoming posts, I will detail how.



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