Battling Congo’s Rape Crisis: The Slow Pace of Progress

The administration launched a $17 million program to fight rape in Congo—but is it effective? Dana Goldstein follows the money—and asks if Hillary Clinton’s rhetoric matches reality.

Robin Hammond/Panos

The administration launched a $17 million program to fight rape in Congo—but is it effective? Dana Goldstein follows the money—and asks if Hillary Clinton’s rhetoric matches reality. Plus: See our entire Congo package on Giving Beast.

Less than a year ago, Hillary Clinton became the first U.S. secretary of state to visit war-torn regions of the Democratic Republic of Congo—site of the deadliest conflict on the planet since World War II.

The trip sparked hope that maybe, finally, the world would take action to stop the fighting, which has been characterized by a brutal and indiscriminate campaign of rape against women and girls. As many as 500,000 Congolese have been raped since war broke out in 1996. Some women have been victimized more than once, returning home after being rehabilitated in Western-funded medical clinics only to be kidnapped anew by armed groups and violated all over again.

This billboard in eastern Congo encourages men to stop raping women. Click the image to see more haunting Daily Beast photos from Congo's frontlines.

During her visit, Clinton pledged $17 million in U.S. aid to fight the rape epidemic. "Working together, we will banish sexual violence into the dark past, where it belongs, and help the Congolese people seize the opportunities of a new day," she wrote later in an op-ed.

Advocates cheered. The new commitment “signaled there may be a comprehensive, American-led diplomatic push on the way” to end the violence, remembered Maurice Carney, executive director of the Washington-based Friends of the Congo.

Yet 10 months later, Africa experts are questioning how the $17 million has been spent. And many allege that despite new Congo legislation passed last week as part of the financial regulation bill, Congress and the Obama administration have avoided taking some of the difficult steps necessary to bring an end to the root cause of the rape crisis: Congo’s 14-year war over control of mineral deposits, which pits the Congolese army against internal rebels and armed militias from neighboring Rwanda and Uganda. (The DRC is rich in gold, diamond, and the “three Ts”—tin, tungsten, and tantalum, used in cellphones and other small electronic devices.)

How to Help CongoThe State Department has provided The Daily Beast with documents detailing how the $17 million to fight sexual violence have been allocated, mostly toward treatment programs for rape survivors. But human rights advocates hope for more. They believe the US should stop sending hundreds of millions of dollars in aid--including military training--to Rwanda and Uganda, whose armed militias perpetrate violence and rape across the border in Congo. They also criticize the administration and Congress for failing to crack down on multinational corporations that operate mines in the country, some of which have paid off armed groups in exchange for access to mineral deposits.

And advocates contend the U.S. should take a leadership role in reforming the United Nations mission in Congo, MONUC, which is regarded as ineffectual at best, corrupt and complicit at worst. The U.S. contributes about a quarter of the funding for the mission—about $337.5 million annually—but no troops. MONUC’s mixed record has led Congolese President Joseph Kabila to pressure the UN to pull its peacekeepers out of Congo by the end of 2011.

“Right now I think everybody is in agreement that aid to Congo has been largely ineffective,” Gerald LeMelle, executive director of Africa Action, told The Daily Beast. “The problem is we have a security interest in the Congo, which is minerals, that large parts of our economy depend on. And we subsequently are investing a lot of money into military support into Uganda, Rwanda, and to the [President Joseph] Kabila government in Congo. But none of these partners are reliable in terms of protecting women from violence. They’ve shown themselves to be completely oblivious, if not in some cases encouraging it.”

The photographs running with this story, taken by The Daily Beast’s Robin Hammond last month in Congo’s devastated North Kivu province, offer a glimpse of the human costs at the heart of the policy debate. From a young woman whose eyes were cut out after she recognized one of the men raping her to an orphanage where half the children have been sexually assaulted and many have contracted HIV, violence is compromising the futures of an entire generation.

In many ways, activists’ criticisms of the Obama administration’s Congo record reflect their high expectations for the first African-American president. Obama has long been interested in Africa, both personally and politically. As a freshman senator in 2005, he sponsored legislation, later signed into law by President Bush, empowering the secretary of state to withhold aid from neighboring countries that play a role in destabilizing Congo.

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But that prerogative was never exercised, under either Bush or Obama, even as both Sweden and the Netherlands de-funded Rwanda because of its support for armed rebel groups active inside Congo.

Christiane Amanpour moderates a panel on rape as a weapon of war in the Congo at the 2010 Women in the World summit.

In its dealings with Rwanda, the U.S. is “paralyzed,” argued Mvemba Dizolele, a native of Congo and Africa policy expert associated with the Hoover Institution and Johns Hopkins University. “We lost our moral authority in 1994 when the genocide happened, and we allowed [Rwandan President] Paul Kagame”—the leader who ended the genocide—“to become the authority in the region and go into Congo.”

Melanne Verveer, the State Department’s global ambassador for women’s issues, pushes back against the notion that the Obama administration could be doing much more to aid Congo.

“If this were easy we would have solved it a decade ago,” she told The Daily Beast. “But there is an effort that is ongoing now that is absolutely intensive. I know everyone is frustrated, including myself, that we can’t get the situation ameliorated faster than we are. But there is so much work going on—probably more than has ever happened at one time on this issue.”

The International Rescue Committee, a large humanitarian agency based in New York, received the largest portion of the $17 million pledged by Clinton for anti-rape efforts, a $7 million grant for its ESPOIR program, a partnership with Congolese non-profits and health facilities to provide medical care, counseling, and other services to survivors of rape.

Another $1 million is going to EngenderHealth, a New York-based reproductive health organization, to treat obstetric fistula, a complication of childbirth that causes incontinence and infection. A second $1 million grant will be used to reintegrate former child soldiers back into local communities.

The remaining $8 million has yet to be distributed, though the State Department says the funds will support programs focused on “behavior change communication”—trainings that teach why sexual violence is wrong—and “multi-sector response,” or bringing the Congolese military, judiciary, government, and civic sectors together to respond to the rape crisis.

Similar programs are already being funded by the United States from other revenue streams. The American Bar Association works with the State Department to provide pro bono legal services to rape survivors in North Kivu. Through that program, 31 rape trials have been held, resulting in 27 criminal convictions. Another 104 cases are pending.

The U.S. military is also involved. Part of its training of Congolese soldiers is a dialogue unit on the illegality of sexual violence and its impact on families and communities. (Since Congo established a democratically elected government in 2006, the constitution has protected women and children from rape, but according to activists on the ground, much of the public is unaware of the changes.)

Complicating matters is the unclear status of MONUC. If UN peacekeepers leave Congo, it could compromise the willingness of other humanitarian organizations, which rely on the UN for security, to stay in the county.

John Norris, executive director of the ENOUGH Project, an anti-genocide program hosted by the Center for American Progress, told The Daily Beast MONUC would have been more effective had the United States contributed troops and military expertise. The current peacekeepers hail primarily from poor countries without highly trained militaries.

“We’ve abandoned the lessons of the 1990s, that peacekeeping doesn’t work when it lacks a confident Western power in charge,” Norris said.

But perhaps the messiest root cause of violence in the DRC is the mining trade itself. The White House supports bipartisan legislation, currently attached to the financial regulation bill that has passed both the House and Senate, that would require U.S. electronics companies to disclose whether their manufacturing materials are sourced from Congo, and create plans to ensure their supply chains do not benefit armed militias.

Most activists argue this is not sufficient, and that the U.S. government should demand more accountability from mining companies active in Congo, such as Freeport McMoRan, based in Arizona, and Anglo Gold Ashanti, whose largest investor is Paulson & Co., the American hedge fund managed by John Paulson.

Freeport McMoRan did not respond to requests for comment for this article, and Paulson & Co. declined to comment. AngloGold spokesman Alan Fine wrote in an email to The Daily Beast that in 2005 the company's employees in Congo "were victims of extortion," paying about $15,000 to a Congolese rebel group. Fine wrote that since then, AngloGold has cooperated with human rights investigations and twice withdrawn personnel from its mining camp during security crises, rather than have them stay and negotiate with combattants.

But critics say the international community, led by the United States, needs to police the mining industry more heavily, and ensure that a significant percentage of Congo's mining profits benefit the nation's citizens. "Electronics companies are seven steps down the supply chain,” said Carney of Friends of the Congo. “Focus on the mining companies. Impunity exists not only in Congo but all the way up the chain to the international level.”

Clinton’s trip to Congo and the resulting attention on sexual violence “really lit a fire under a lot of people in the State Department,” observed Norris, who worked at State during the Bill Clinton administration. “But it is tricky seeing the aspirational stuff get transformed into reality. I don’t think the administration has truly gotten its head around how to deal with the conflict mineral trade. And I’m not sure I’ve seen the bureaucratic commitment down below the level of the secretary.”

Plus: Check out more from Giving Beast, featuring news, video, and amazing photographs of people, places, and issues that need our support.

Dana Goldstein is an associate editor and writer at The Daily Beast. Her work on politics, women's issues, and education has appeared in The American Prospect, Slate, BusinessWeek, The New Republic, and The Nation.