Conflict Minerals, Rape, and the Congo

Mention the words “Democratic Republic of the Congo” (a country in Central Africa half the size of Europe) and many people in the Western world will immediately think of two things: conflict minerals and rape.

The idea that the smartphones lead to rape in eastern Congo is a handy message for organizations who want to mobilize support in a hurry.

The war in Congo’s eastern provinces receives more media attention than the rest of the country. And in the stories the outside world tells, the ongoing conflict there – an irreducibly complex mix of local, regional, and international dynamics, with roots going back centuries – is boiled down to a simple, two-part equation: more demand for conflict minerals (such as gold, tungsten, tantalum, and tin, used for the production of luxury items like cell phones) equals more sexual violence against women.

The idea that the smartphones lead to rape in eastern Congo is a handy message for organizations who want to mobilize support in a hurry. And messages like this one have helped to focus the world’s awareness on a conflict that has received precious little attention, while reminding the Western world of its complicity in the conflict. Certainly, both conflict minerals and sexual violence are important characteristics of the conflict in the Congo. Unfortunately, though, focusing just on these two elements draws attention away from the conflict’s many local-level causes – including land conflict, struggles for political representation, and complex relationships with neighboring countries.

Veteran Congo researcher Séverine Autesserre, who has studied the effects of Western narratives on conflict, concludes that the focus on rape means that aid organizations not focusing on sexual violence find it more difficult to raise funding. Meanwhile, at least one militia has begun to commit more sexual violence, knowing that it is a good way to get attention – and notoriety – in a hurry.

Conflict minerals are just one of many contributing factors to the conflict. Armed groups in the Congo fund themselves through a variety of means, including illegal taxes on civilian populations, timber sales, and marijuana cultivation. The BBC reports that the unregulated charcoal trade alone is worth up to $35 million annually, with much of that money ending up in the coffers of armed groups. Few militias exist for the sole purpose of exploiting minerals, political representation, land conflicts, or self-defense are the main reasons most groups take up arms, with minerals providing a handy source of income for the cause. One 2011 study estimated that conflict over minerals constituted only 8 percent of violence in that year. However, the conflict minerals narrative continues to shape far more than 8 percent of the international response.

Posted: 6/26/2014 7:00:00 AM