Women in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) are the silenced victims of a war that has lasted nearly 14 years. The number of victims grows daily as massive rapes have become a rampantly used weapon of war. At least 200,000 cases of sexual violence have been reported, but because some victims were killed by the attackers and others fear retaliation from the latter, many more cases remain unknown. Other cases remain unreported because the victims are far from any possible help or are forced to hide behind the cloak of shame and horror.

The historic trip Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, is making this week to Africa – with a stop in Congo – holds enormous potential for the U.S. and the international community to recommit to a zero tolerance policy against sexual violence. The silenced victims have struggled without any form of justice for far too long. Prior to embarking on her eleven-day trip to Africa , Hillary Clinton stated that denouncing gender-based violence would be a key aspect of her diplomatic efforts on the continent of Africa. In 2008, the State Department provided over $6 million in funding to gender-focused programs throughout the world, and USAID signed on to an agreement to work with victims of violence in the DRC. Less than a year into his presidency, President Barack Obama and his administration have made notable strides combating gender-based violence, but much more needs to be done. He demonstrated his commitment by also appointing Mrs. Melanne Verveer as his adviser on gender-based violence and women’s empowerment – the first U.S. ambassador at large for women’s issues.

In the past 15 years, the international community has made steady progress towards recognizing sexual violence as a war crime, crime against humanity, and even genocide. In 2008, the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) passedResolution 1820 , a landmark document on the ongoing fight against sexual violence that explicitly recognizes it as a security issue that calls for a security response and intervention. It also demands the presence of women in every stage of abolishing sexual violence in conflict, including peace talks. Verveer, at her May 2009 testimony to the U.S. Senate, echoes the United Nations’ no impunity position when she said, “[T]o the perpetrators, they [the women] are nothing more than vessels for carrying out a war strategy…The culture of impunity must end.” Rape in the DRC carries a maximum sentence of 20 years, but because of a lack of funds for investigations and judiciary capacity , many cases are not convicted. Also lack of political will to implement gender-based violence laws is a factor. Sexual violence against women is pushed to the bottom of the agenda, forced to wait below more “important” priorities like ending warfare and bringing economic development. But for the women and children who suffer mercilessly in the hands of these wartime rebels, the wait has been long enough. Leaders need to recognize that protecting the rights of women and children is not only a right in itself, but by recognizing these rights, they are also doing countless more to support development in their country. When more than half the population of a country, the women, is forcibly tied down, discriminated and violated, a country cannot thrive. Thus, economic development, peace and security are all invariably connected to the empowerment and respect of women. Africa Faith and Justice Network (AFJN) commends secretary of state, Clinton’s decision to make gender-based violence a top priority during her mission to Congo. As she travels with Verveer to Congo, AFJN urges them to:

• reaffirm the U.S.’ commitment to ending sexual violence against women not only in Congo, but worldwide. • send a clear message to rebel leaders and their troops that sexual enslavement, mutilation, rape and other cruel methods of torture against women and men will not go on unpunished. • urge the Congolese president to take every step possible to bring to justice those in the Congolese national army and police who are accused or suspected of sexual violence. • demand that accountability, justice, and reparations be sought for victims of sexual violence by taking a staunch no amnesty position against state or non-state criminals guilty of gender-based violence, as the UNSC recommends. • tie U.S foreign aid to building capacity of the DRC’s government to create a timeframe to properly address and monitor the cases of sexual violence

Sexual perpetrators and those who condone their actions must know that gender-based violence is an offense that the international and local community will no longer tolerate.

By Barbara Vi Thien Ho