An estimated 1,000 people die every day in the Democratic Republic of Congo from conflicts largely fueled, and funded, by the illegal international trade in minerals used in our cell phones, laptops and other electronic gizmos.
One of the most horrible features of this pervasive conflict has been sexual violence against women, rape, reportedly perpetrated by all sides in the fighting as a means to traumatize and humiliate the opposition. The DRC (formerly Zaire or the Belgian Congo, not to be confused – though it often is — with the neighboring Republic of Congo) is home to “Africa’s World War,” a conflict that has killed more than 5 million people.
So what does a couple living in a remote log cabin in the Cascade foothills and a group of Congolese women have in common when it comes to this massive tragedy? They believe empowering women is critical to stopping the violence. HEAL Africa operates in war-torn eastern Congo but its U.S. headquarters is in the home of Judy and Richard Anderson, located in the woods outside of Monroe.
Judy grew up in the Congo, the child of two educators who taught in the former Belgian colony. Judy lived there before, during and after it gained independence. She and her husband Dick have worked for many years in a number of development projects and in 2003 returned to the Congo to help launch this project that specifically deals with the epidemic of sexual violence. Back then, few were aware of how widespread was this tactic of war. Too few still pay attention, Judy says, or understand how our indifference contributes to the problem.
Many despair of some countries in Africa ever improving, ever moving beyond corruption and violence. But despair is too easy, says Jeanne “Mama” Muliri Kapekatyo, one of a number of Congolese women whose efforts in combating gender violence has inspired a documentary film. Mama Muliri, one of the project leaders of HEAL Africa and a widely respected representative for women’s rights in the Congo, spoke in Seattle at various events this past week about how the organization does much more than assist the survivors of rape: “Women are the strength of a community. We work to give them a voice, self-sufficiency, dignity.”
On Sunday, Mama Muliri took part in a screening of the documentary and a panel discussion at Seattle University. In addition to Muliri, Judy Anderson and the filmmaker Bent-Jorgen Perlmutt, one of the speakers was a man who fled Congo in 1997, Wemba-koy Okonda. Okanda lives in Tacoma and runs a local organization to assist displaced Congolese. Given what happened in Rwanda, he asked why the U.S. and others in the international community are not taking more action to stop the violence in Congo. “Perhaps it is because so many businesses continue to benefit from this conflict,” Okanda said.