Stop Congo's rape epidemic

By Mary Lou Hartman
Saturday, December 12, 2009

I was just raped.

Not just, as in recently, though sometimes it feels like yesterday, but just as in only. I was only raped, not mutilated. I did not have a bottle or stick or gun shoved into my vagina, twisted to inflict maximum injury. Though damaged, I did not have my breasts lopped off, nor did I lose a limb. I was left intact, though far from whole.

I did not feel lucky 4 1/2 years ago, when I was raped, but I do feel lucky today as I read about the unfathomable violence that is being unleashed against women and girls in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

I struggle to understand how the word "rape" can describe what happened to me and be used to describe what is happening to them. My mind skitters in a thousand directions when I try to force myself to think about it. Is it shameful to think that I share something with these women? Is it wrong to think that I don't?

I do not believe that being raped gives me any moral authority on the subject. I don't pretend to know what other women experience or how they cope or fail to cope. I only know that following my rape, I suffered from depression, a profound need to be alone, denial, guilt and a distorted desire to prove that I was, in fact, worthless. I suffered from post-traumatic stress syndrome, triggered by, among other things, airports, eye doctors and, well, almost anything that brought on a sense of helplessness.

Therapy, family, friends, faith, time, distance, medical care and more have helped bring me back from the brink of despair. I am a strong person in my own right, but I am certain that I could not have pushed through without that support. What chance, then, do the girls and women of Congo have, lacking many of these resources?

Despite international attention, including visits from Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and U.N. officials, and a recent "60 Minutes" report, Congo remains the most dangerous place on Earth for girls and women. Hundreds of thousands of women and girls are victims of unimaginably horrific gender-based violence. In just the first six months of 2009, the United Nations reported close to 7,000 victims of sexual violence in Congo, a number that is significantly underrepresentative. It does not include, for example, the women who do not live to tell their tales of assault, or those who are too ill, too ashamed or too afraid to come forward.

In some cases, women and girls, butchered from the inside out, suffer from traumatic gynecologic fistula. This means that they have been raped so violently, sometimes by as many as 10 men, that the tissue between the vagina and the bladder and/or rectum is torn, causing them, among other things, to live in a constant state of filth from their own feces and urine. They reek of it. And then they are ostracized.

I know what it is like to feel dirty after a rape. I cannot imagine what it is like to have these agonizing psychological scars so physically, publicly manifested, reinforcing the darkest feelings of self-loathing triggered by the rape itself.

The United Nations' latest report on Congo, published this week, paints a devastating picture of complicity among the Congolese Army, rebel groups and neighboring forces in Burundi, Uganda and Tanzania. It examines the role that foreign governments and international businesses, including a Nevada-based company, play in perpetuating the violence, much of it driven by greed for gold and conflict minerals, minerals that are used in cellphones, DVD players and video games.

Trying to decipher all of it is overwhelming, but that is no excuse for inaction. There is nothing morally complicated about mass rape. Congo is a world away, but its gold ends up around our necks, its minerals in our pockets. We are contributing, knowingly or unwittingly, to the misery of its people.

Two bills before Congress would help to make the conflict-minerals market more transparent and thereby undercut the funding of the groups who are destroying Congolese women. They are H.R. 4128, introduced by Rep. Jim McDermott (D-Wash.), and S.891, introduced by Sens. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) and Russ Feingold (D-Wis.).

Write your representative and senators and demand that they push for passage. Educate yourself and others about conflict minerals; learn which businesses are involved. (Lists of electronic industry leaders can be found at

Start a letter campaign, demand conflict-free products, contribute to the training of Congolese counselors. Sponsor a woman who suffers from traumatic fistula, and cover the cost of an operation to repair the damage (on average, $450, a pittance for many Americans). Two organizations that provide these operations, and crucial supporting services, are Heal Africa and the Panzi Hospital.

Being raped was for me, as it is for so many women, an intensely private agony, something I've discussed with very few people. My privacy, however, is a luxury I can no longer afford. Do something, anything, because to do nothing in the face of this evil cannot be an option.

Mary Lou Hartman is a documentary filmmaker.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company