Democratic Republic of the Congo

Consumers of War and Exploitation

I just finished reading Samantha Nutt's new book, Damned Nations, and my brain is going on overdrive trying to deconstruct all the complex issues outlined in that book. She seamlessly weaves hard facts of our world's increasing militarization (annual military spending is now at $1.5 trillion, the highest in sixty-five years) with gut-wrenching accounts of her personal experiences on the field in some of the most war-torn corners of the world. Perhaps most importantly though, Nutt poignantly reveals that often invisible but very real thread that binds us, as individuals, directly to this violence.

"We are consumers of war", Nutt bluntly writes. But more often than not, we are oblivious of this fact.  Case in point: the Canadian Pension Plan, which every working Canadian citizen must contribute to, has invested some $200 million to the top arms manufacturers in the world. We Canadians are, collectively and individually -- and most probably unknowingly -- polishing the very machinery that leads to human destruction. Meanwhile, the international community is in a frenzy trying to put an arms embargo against Syria to alleviate the violence currently taking place there. It seems rather counterintuitive, doesn't it? To be placing our bets on a boom in the weapons industry and then freaking out every single time there's conflict because those same weapons are being used to kill innocent people?

Tungsten, tantalum, tin, and gold are minerals used in our electronics...they also fund the conflict in Central Africa

And then there is the more publicized issue of "conflict minerals". In a nutshell, profits from the minerals that are used to manufacture many of our electronic devices are being used to finance armed militia groups, most especially in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (where most of these mines are). Not only are civilians being murdered en-masse, but women, children, and men alike are brutally raped, re-raped, gang raped as a part of daily life (more on that here). And let's not forget the recent reports on the atrocious working conditions of the factories our mobile phones, tablets, and laptops are manufactured atrocious that it has actually driven some people to commit suicide (Foxconn, anyone?).

And isn't it all just too ironic? The very technologies that have been lauded for liberating societies (think mobile phone use in the "Arab Spring"), the same technologies that are supposedly continuing our path towards greater progress are the products of rampant human rights violations. It's like taking one step forward and then two steps back. And so we are not just consumers of war, but we are also consumers of exploitation.

But then I wonder...if we really knew or understood the processes that lay behind the many things we consume, would we change our lifestyle, not wanting to be a part of such an irresponsible system? Or is the cost of human life too far removed that we just wouldn't be moved to act? I'm a bit of an optimist (maybe to a fault) so I'd like to think that the former is the case. Plus, this isn't new to us. We are aware of the exploitation happening in various developing nations and have even been moved to act before (as in the case of sweatshops). And so I'm inclined to believe that we (a good majority of us, at least) would be mobilized to act if we really knew what was happening behind all the marketing, branding, and all the shiny things made to distract us.

Already there is a growing movement towards ethical and responsible consumerism with a number of businesses offering products and services that are environmentally friendly, locally produced, and ensured against human exploitation. And then there is the growing popularity of "cash mobs" -- à la flash mobs but for shopping! -- where people spend money as a group to incentivize a business to make a socially responsible change (less sticks, more carrots).

"Every commercial transaction has a cost". And that goes deeper than the amount of money we pay...we're talking about the cost of human life here. And I think that those of us who are in a position of privelege have a responsibility to educate ourselves and be more conscious about our consumer choices....because that's just it...we have choices and simply acting guilty about these facts is needless and unproductive. At a time when humanitarianism and "doing good" seems to be on everyone's lips, a critical reflection of our motivations and actions must be our first step...


For the past week, we at Journalists for Human Rights have been running a campaign called HollerDay to actively raise awareness about the epidemic of rape in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and raise funds for our programs in the country that will train journalists on how to effectively and responsibly report on this issue and human rights in general. Naming March 4th "HollerDay" and encouraging students across Canada to raise their voice against this horrific violation of human rights, we tried to shed a lighter side to an otherwise disheartening reality.

Known as the rape capital of the world, the DRC sees women being raped, re-raped, and gang raped every single day. Rape has, quite simply, become the weapon of war...cheaper than bullets and more effective than killing. According to the UN Population Fund, there were 15,996 cases of rape registered in 2008 alone. 65% of those victims were children in their early adolescence... not even really "women". Can you imagine how many others went unreported because of fear and humiliation? Such appalling figures.

But alas, figures are only figures. They barely tell the story of the horrific reality that the women of the DRC face every single day. I first learned about this problem when reading Nick Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn's 'Half the Sky'...the first time I was introduced to a human face and personal dimension to this abstract and seemingly distant problem. They told the story of Dina who, only seventeen at the time of writing, on her way home from her parents' farm was gang raped by militia men. I'm going to share an excerpt from the book that tells her story. It's not's actually downright disgusting. My apologies in advance but I only share this because it is real...and reality...especially this reality...should not be glossed over.

"'If you cry out, we will kill you," one of them told Dina. So she kept quiet as, one by one, the five men raped her. Then they held her down as one of them shoved the stick inside her.

When Dina didn’t come home, her father and friends bravely went out to the fields, and there they found her, half dead in the grass. They covered her and carried her back to her home. There was a health center in Kindu, but Dina’s family couldn’t afford to take her there to be treated, so she was cared for only at home. She lay paralyzed in her bed, unable to walk. The stick had broken into her bladder and rectum, causing a fistula, or hole, in the tissues. As a result, urine and feces trickled constantly through her vagina and down her legs. These injuries, rectovaginal and vesicovaginal fistulas, are common in the Congo because of sexual violence”.

Abhorrent. Abominable. Repulsive. Monstrous. Words in the thesaurus are lacking.

And yet, this happens. Every single day. To literally tens of thousands of women.

I wept unabashedly when I first read about this. I weep as I write this.

A few weeks ago I saw the Pulitizer Prize winning play "Ruined" by Lynn Nottage put on by the Obsidian Theatre Company. I wept when I watched that too. It tells the tale of Mama Nadi, a businesswoman operating a brothel during the civil war, and the women who, once beloved wives, mothers, and daughters but because of the shame and stigma rape has brought upon them, now serve as prostitutes in the brothel. It is heartbreaking and agonizing to see these stories acted out in front of you knowing that somewhere out there someone has experienced exactly that. But seeing the resilience of these women is just as gripping as the atrocities that they face.

The problem is nowhere near being resolved. In fact, Doctors Without Borders says it has already treated more than 200 people for rape since January of this year. It's only the beginning of March.

I don't have the answers to this problem. I don't think even the highest international bodies have the answer to this problem. And if they do, there's always that tricky business of implementation and execution. But I don't know how I (we) could just sit and do nothing while lives are ravaged in this incredibly inhuman way. So what then? I simply ask you (read: beg you) to learn more. Educate yourself on this issue that is depleting one of our greatest resources. And then talk about it! Let's start participating in this dialogue that is so very, very necessary. Let's not shy away from the complexity and monstrosity that is this reality. Think of your mothers, your grandmothers, your daughters, your sisters, your wives...can you imagine this happening to us? I don't want to. But it's happening. Far away as it may seem, it's happening to somebody's grandmother, somebody's mother, somebody's daughter, somebody's wife.

Luck, chance, whatever it is you call it, has put us in a position of privilege. Let's do something worthwhile with it... _______________________________________________________________________________

To learn more about sexual violence in the DRC and around the world, here's a short list of organizations, campaigns, and news sources that provide support and information about this issue:

UN Action Against Sexual Violence in Conflict: unites the work of 13 UN entities with the goal of ending sexual violence in conflict.

Soldiers Who Rape, Commanders Who Condone: A report from Human Rights Watch on sexual violence and military reform in the DRC.

Heal Africa: With a hospital in Goma, Congo, Heal Africa works to repair fistulas and tends to rape victims.

Stop Rape in the DRC: a global campaign calling attention to the wide-scale atrocities committed every day against women and girls in eastern DRC. The Campaign is initiated by the women of eastern DRC, V-Day and UNICEF, representing UN Action Against Sexual Violence in Conflict.

The Fistula Foundation: The Fistula Foundation raises awareness and funding for fistula treatment, prevention and education programs worldwide.

One by One: One by One has the singular mission of contributing to the elimination of fistula worldwide through programs of treatment and prevention.

V-Day A global movement and series of consciousness-raising events to end violence against girls and women.