Congo: Expert Officials, Activists Press U.S. Senate to Address Rape as a Weapon of War
“Congo’s women have waited a very long time for the United States to notice the horror of rape in eastern Congo… We don’t want commemorations; we want you to act now.” Addressing the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations Wednesday afternoon, Congolese journalist Chouchou Namegabe Nabintu recounted horrific stories of rape committed against women and girls who have borne the brunt of violence in eastern Congo for nearly 12 years. The high incidence of violent rape has led to the characterization of the region as the deadliest place in the world for women and girls. Chouchou was one of eight witnesses, notably among them Enough co-Founder John Prendergast and award-winning playwright Eve Ensler, who testified at a joint committee hearing titled, “Confronting Rape and Other Forms of Violence Against Women in Conflict Zones, Spotlight: DRC and Sudan.” The African affairs subcommittee, led by Senator Russ Feingold (D-WI), and a new subcommittee on global women’s issues, chaired by Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA), co-hosted the hearing. With expertise ranging from high-ranking Obama administration officials, leaders of humanitarian and human rights organizations, and activists – two of whom are natives of Sudan and Congo – the afternoon of testimony was both impassioned and substantive. Despite the heartwrenching topic at hand, there was a palpable sense of optimism in the crowded hearing room, as the panelists and audience members, many of whom have devoted their careers to shining a light on the use of rape as a weapon of war in Congo, seemed to find a ready advocate in Senator Boxer in particular. The Honorable Melanne Verveer, Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women’s Issues, was the most prominent speaker of the first panel. In one particularly memorable exchange, Ambassador Verveer expressed support for the creation of a U.N. position dedicated to gender-based violence, but acknowledged that the U.N. is undergoing reforms and grappling with how to address global women’s issues as a whole. But Senator Boxer underlined the urgency of the situation: “We don’t have time for the U.N. to get its act together. (…) We don’t have time because it is a shame on the human race.” At the close of the first panel, Ambassador Verveer committed to convene the “necessary actors” to confront the rampant use of rape as a weapon of war, emphasizing that the president, First Lady Michelle Obama, and Secretary Clinton are concerned about the issue. Visibly moved by the testimony, Senator Boxer thanked the first panelists and welcomed second panel with these words: “I am so ashamed of the human race sometimes. I’m ashamed about not knowing enough…[I] pledge that me, this voice, is going to be heard.” Throughout the second panel, Senator Boxer maintained this theme of personal concern and commitment to action. After hearing authoritative and sometimes emotional testimony from activists and humanitarian leaders about the root causes and responses to sexual violence in Congo and Darfur, Senator Boxer asked each witness to provide key recommendations to include in a letter to President Obama and Secretary Clinton that would focus on immediate and tangible actions. In sum, the hearing placed necessary and overdue attention on the blight of rape as a weapon in two of the world’s most devastating conflicts. Between the powerful testimony of such expert witnesses and additional resources submitted for the record (like this written contribution from Human Rights Watch), the Senate is now armed with the tools and moral obligation to take action. We’ll be watching closely to see what happens next.