Sunday, April 20, 2014

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Are Consumers of Electronic Products Complicit in Rape in the Democratic Republic of Congo?

Think Africa Press examines the supply of minerals which links consumer products to the daily atrocities faced by women in the Congo.
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There has been widespread recognition that violent conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) is fuelled by the mining and trade of its minerals. Equally recognised is the fact that women are the chief victims of ongoing violence in the DRC: symbolically violated and subject to rape as a “weapon of war”. What is less well recognised are the possible links between these two issues in the Congo and the supply-chain which connects both of these issues to consumers. Are international global consumers complicit in rapes perpetrated in the Congo? Perhaps. Certainly there should be a wider acknowledgement of the role ‘vital’ electronic goods play in the perpetration of sexual violence against women - and in some cases men.

Think Africa Press has spoken with two Congolese activists: Victoria Dove Dimandja, who campaigns with the international anti-colonialism organisation ‘Liberation', and Wemba-koy Okondo, who started Washington-based organisation ‘OkoNGO’. These activists highlight the way that the state army and various militias are savagely persecuting women with impunity. In this climate of conflict there is a distinct lack of effective policing, as Dimandja says: “If a rape is reported to the police, the rapist can bribe them $10 to walk free”.

Dimandja and Okondo maintain that these militias from Rwanda and Uganda, as well as the DRC, derive benefits from illegally controlling the mines within the Congo. Rivalry between these groups and the attempts by the Congolese government to wrest control back from them are one of the key causes of conflict within the country. Dimandja and Okondo therefore assert that by propping up these pockets of control the international mineral trade prolongs the conflict within the Congo – the climate within which rape has become an everyday normality.

The vital mineral for the electronics market is called Coltan, or “Columbo Tantalite”, a combination of two ores often found together, Columbium and Tantalum. While Australia is the largest producer, 80% of the known reserves of Tantalum are found in Africa, with 80% of African Tantalum found in the DRC. Individual soldiers and commanders attempt to control mineral resources largely for their own benefit, due to their low pay and standards of living. Rebel and army groups remove farmers and landowners from Coltan rich areas and gain control of the highly profitable resource. The different controlling groups become local traders and sell to bigger regional traders such as Rwanda and Uganda, or directly to the global market. Coltan exports subsequently end up in Asia, Europe and the US, where they are refined and sold on to capacitor manufacturers. At the end of a complex supply chain are manufacturers of electrical products and, finally, we who buy these products. Of course not all of the tantalum that ends up in these products will be from the DRC, but the route through the supply chain is complex enough to make transparency in sourcing difficult. Attempts have been made by Nokia to identify the sourcing of minerals and this work should be commended. The fact remains, however, that full traceability of minerals to a legal source is near impossible given the complexity of the current state of the mining system within the DRC and the web of international trade. Unfortunately the maintenance of the supply chain is beneficial to local traders' and corporate profits, perhaps the reason why there is still not enough work being done to try and make the international trade transparent.

As a result of the current conflict it is estimated that there are over 6000 rapes a year. There are many factors which contribute to this problem; DRC is a patriarchal country and women’s rights are not equally respected. But you cannot escape the fact that rape was not as common before the conflict as it is now. Now women in these conflict areas are most at risk. A powerful means for militias to maintain control is through sexual violence against women who are, as Cynthia Enloe describes, the symbolic “bearers” of a community. Fundamentally, as Victoria Dove Dimandja emphasises, women are the backbone of Congolese society and when they are attacked, men are disempowered, left feeling unable to protect community members. NGOs are struggling to reach these women and the national justice system appears unable to deal with perpetrators effectively.

In a consumerist culture that ignores what happens at the origins of production, the first step that we can take to make an active change is to raise the awareness of individuals. The next step is to join together and build campaigns to lobby governments and put pressure on the companies selling the end products. As consumers and owners of a menagerie of electrical goods we should be deeply concerned by the possible connection between our consumption of these goods and the horrific experiences of women in the DRC. We should be conscious of how we conveniently turn a blind eye and ‘upgrade’ our electronic equipment.

Wemba-koy sees international global consumers as complicit: “The majority don’t even attempt to find out what’s going on. They just think it's black people killing each other. They don’t know that people in the Congo are overpowered by the people who are rich.” As Desmond Tutu states: "If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality."A powerful attempt has to be made to regulate the minerals that major multi-national electronic companies use for their production. Major pressure campaigns must call for a peaceful extraction process. Multi-national corporations will continue to make profits from this mineral but should only deal with mines that meet minimum standards. Another important step towards a more human trade in Coltan is for MNCs to invest some part of their profits in to stabilizing the region and trying to benefit the Congolese people in a prolonged and effective manner through investing in social infrastructure. 

At the individual level, Wemba-koy advises people to contact producers and ask where their minerals come from whilst also joining campaigns such as It Must Stop. It is the informed consumer and the companies involved that must pressurize for better regulation of this industry. Meanwhile, the uninformed consumer must be exposed to the very real human costs of this flourishing market.

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