An unheard humanitarian crisis

Approximate deaths since 1998 due to civil unrest: 5.4 million Estimated deaths every month: 45,000 Number of people displaced in the last year: 1 million These are statistics from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a central African nation roughly a quarter the size of the United States, whose people are being exploited for the riches buried underneath their feet. But it is not only these figures âÄî which eclipse those of the genocide in Darfur, Sudan and the conflict in Somalia âÄî that make the situation in the DRC arguably the worst humanitarian crisis in the world. What makes life so hellish in the DRC is the unparalleled tactic of using systematic rape against women and children as a means to control the society. The women of the DRC âÄîreferred to as the rape capital of the world âÄî are being used as pawns by both government and rebel soldiers in an ongoing civil war for wealth, power and prestige. The most recent conflict began after Rwandan extremists involved in the genocide, fled to neighboring DRC in 1994 and began attacking Rwanda from across national borders. Two years later, the Rwandan government struck back, setting off a regional war and spawning numerous other rebel groups bent on conquering the area. But youâÄôve probably never heard about that conflict, or about the women whoâÄôve bared the majority of their countryâÄôs burden since 1998. Most of us havenâÄôt. Until recently, the most prominent story coming out of the DRC concerned endangered mountain gorillas whose livelihood was threatened by expanding military forces. But the true story of the DRC, and the women in it, is far more complex then Joseph ConradâÄôs novel âÄúThe Heart of DarknessâÄù or any exotic tales of African gorillas. It is a story of colonial-rooted manipulation, the search for blood wealth, the objectification of Congolese women as war spoils and the continuous indifference from the international community. The DRC has a long history of subjugation from outside forces, stemming from its vast mineral deposits of gold, diamonds, copper, cobalt and coltan (which is used in our cell phones and laptops). From colonists to politicians and rebels, power forces are scrambling for riches in order to buy more weapons, gain more land and get more wealth. Few citizens have ever profited from their own country. The citizens of the DRC have rarely been able to determine their own destiny. But the women of the DRC have a distinctly cruel relationship with their countryâÄôs past and present. Women are the fundamental members of African societies as they hold roles as both domestic and agricultural laborers, and are often attributed with the success or failure of their community. Rebels in the DRC are well aware that gaining control of the women provides access for gaining control over contested areas, and ultimately control over an entire country. And there could be no greater fear then the horrific sexual acts being inflicted on Congolese women. Though there are no accurate figures, most human rights organizations believe the number of women raped since the commencement of the civil war is in the hundreds of thousands. And according to Medecins sans Frontieres, 75 percent of all the rape cases they deal with worldwide are in eastern Congo. But if the sheer number of rapes is not horrifying enough, the acts themselves surely are. Testimonies of Congolese women being gang raped in front of family members, having objects âÄî such as razors, branches and batons âÄî thrust into their vaginas, being shot in the genitals and being purposely infected with HIV, are emerging everyday. Children as young as five and women as old as 80 have been documented as targets for sexual violence in the DRC. Rape uniquely affects African women as access to emergency medical care, STI and HIV/AIDS testing and affordable medication are rare. Doctors stationed in conflict areas have reported women walking for days with torn genitals and obstetric fistulas (a condition caused by a hole in the rectum or bladder and vagina due to violent rape, causing the free leaking of feces and urine) to get treatment. And those are the lucky ones. Slowly, through the deliberate infection of HIV and the inability to care for female carriers, the Congo is losing its greatest asset âÄî women. Even the 17,000 troops U.N. peacekeeping forces stationed in the DRC have failed to improve the plight of the Congolese women. But despite the significant obstacles they face, many women are refusing to accept their future as a continuation of the past. By testifying to journalists, coordinating local support groups, and urging the international community to act more aggressively against the humanitarian crisis, theyâÄôre continually rebelling against their depiction as passive victims in a hellish situation. But they can only do so much. The consequences of this violence are more far-reaching then one can imagine. With HIV infections flourishing in the country, itâÄôs only a matter of time before a whole gender is lost. A surgeon working in the DRC recently said, âÄúIf you combine HIV and sexual violence in Eastern Congo, this is a condition that is sufficient to affect the whole of humanity, to destroy a whole society, to destroy a whole people, slowly but surely.âÄù Kathryn Nelson welcomes comments at [email protected]