Ecofeminism,  Featured

Preventing Rape in the Congo Fights Deforestation—Here’s How

Aerial view of the Lukenie River as it meanders through the Central Congolese lowland forests of the DRC. Image by Valerius Tygart via Wikimedia Commons.

Tackling sexual violence against women in the Congo is a direct way to fight deforestation.  

Let me explain: Africa’s Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is home to the second-largest tropical rainforest in the world, second only to that of the Amazon Basin. Both of these rainforests combined make up what is known as the ‘lungs of the planet’; the Amazon being the right, Congo the left.  

This left side of the Earth’s vital organ is the world’s largest reservoir of CO2 carbon, holding 30 Gt of Carbon, or the equivalent to 20 years of fossil fuel emissions for the United States. It’s land so fertile that a trip down a dirt road has been described as  driving through a fruit salad. It’s a land so rich in minerals, it’s been dubbed the Saudi Arabia of the tech age.

This land is currently appealing to militias because of the demand for Cobalt, which is used in lithium-ion batteries — basically all of our gadgets and electric car batteries. 

We all may be carrying a piece of Congo around in our pockets. And while nobody wants to think that their smartphone is contributing to the raping of women, girls, and even babies, data reveals it does. 

Pure (99.9 %) cobalt chips, electrolytically refined, as well as a high purity (99.8 % = 2N8) 1 cm3 cobalt cube for comparison. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Last year, expected growth in Elon Musk’s Tesla market triggered a surge in cobalt prices, along with a boom in supply from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Record prices unleashed a modern-day gold rush in the embattled nation and thousands of small-scale miners scrambled to exploit rich mineral deposits, often working illegally in dangerous makeshift pits. Supply from these so-called artisanal miners more than doubled between 2016 and 2018, according to trading house Darton Commodities

And according to Bloomberg, even though the current cobalt market is depressed, a rebound could be ahead as automakers roll out electric-car models.

While cobalt suppliers scramble take a piece of Congo’s mineral pie, its rainforest, like that of the Amazon—along with its biodiversity and ability to breathe for our planet—is under great threat due to deforestation from intensive mineral exploitation. A new study reveals this vital forest may completely vanish by 2100.

Women’s Bodies as a Unique Battlefield

The United Nations Security Council Resolution 1820 states that sexual violence is “a tactic of war to humiliate, dominate, instill fear in, disperse and/or forcibly relocate civilian members of a community or an ethnic group.”

It works. Chouchou Namegabe has seen that violence first-hand (see part 1 of our interview with this Congolese journalist here). The “silent war” in the Congo was a euphemism for using rape to destabilize communities.

“They gave orders to militias; you have to use the silent war,” says Chouchou, who shares one woman’s story (warning: brutal scenes ahead):  

“She was raped. Every day she was attached to the trees. They used such atrocities that really make her suffer.” Some of the women were even forced to eat their babies, Chouchou tells me. Another woman’s story:  

“When I met her, she was lost. She saw her five kids being killed in front of her. Five! She was obliged to eat the flesh every day because they told her ‘it will give you the strength to resist’. And while she pleaded with her assailants to kill her they merely replied, ‘No. We can’t give you a good death.” 

Chouchou explains this was not only a physical torture, but a spiritual torture. 

As a result of the trans-generational trauma, along with impunity for rebel leaders, a culture of rape has seeped into the fabric of communities. It’s to the point that sexual assault is so normalized that young babies are often raped.

According to Unicef: “Sexual violation of women erodes the fabric of a community in a way that few weapons can. Rape’s damage can be devastating because of the strong communal reaction to the violation and pain stamped on entire families. The harm inflicted in such cases on a woman by a rapist is an attack on her family and culture, as in many societies women are viewed as repositories of a community’s cultural and spiritual values.”

Hearing Chouchou’s stories above, that’s not hard to understand.

What’s more is that the damage to cultural and community life wrought by the use of sexual violence in warfare can persist for generations. Long-term psychological damage and ongoing suffering mean that such violence affects not only the immediate victim but also her children and grandchildren, family, extended family and community life, according to this report.

“Rape has become kind of a social disease because it was done by rebel groups, by foreign groups, and when people saw that there was no justice, the civilians started copying that. People think they can use women’s bodies as they want,” says Chouchou. 

No Justice, No Peace

In 2006, Chouchou urged the International Criminal Court (ICC) to include rape and sexual violence in its list of charges against former Congolese commander, Thomas Lubanga. She was thinking of justice for the victims. To prove her case, she hand delivered testimonies to the ICC documenting Lubanga’s use of sexual violence during the conflict. In 2012 Lubanga was convicted of war crimes and sentenced to 30 years in prison—but not for sexual violence. 

Chouchou explains there’s still no justice: “We saw that in his charges, there were not charges of rape and sexual violence. So we went to the ICC and they said there was no proof. Then they said they’d start investigations.”

While it was over thirteen years ago that she hand-delivered these messages to the ICC urged the ICC to include rape as a weapon of war in his list of charges, she has yet to hear back: “We’re still waiting on the investigation.”

It’s a pretty direct line between mining cobalt, used to power our smartphones, and the rape of women in the places where it’s mined. Photo by Rawpixels via Pexels.

Bad for women, bad for the environment 

Backing up Chouchou’s experience, research reveals that mining leads to violence against women. When women are broken, communities disintegrate—and are left unable to fight for the health of their land. Nobody is worrying about deforestation when they are physically and mentally traumatized.

Mining hurts both women’s bodies and the environment. Mining inevitably leads to  large-scale environmental devastation. An investigation by the DRC-based PREMICONGO, supported by the Dutch-based watchdog coalition GOOD Electronics Network, has observed the industry’s toxic public-health consequences and impacts on critical ecosystems: A dyke built by the company has diverted the local Mabende River, and local wells have dwindled and drinking water supplies are endangered.

Chemical discharges due to lack of sedimentation tanks have left swaths of the forest “destroyed by the spreading of acid on the ground,” without protective measures for endangered species.

Due to massive deforestation, villagers have lost crucial income sources due to the destruction of traditional forest-based food cultivation, including medicinal plants, fruits and mushrooms. While mining companies reap the profits, locals are left with no compensation for the impact on these indigenous resources, one of the few other economic resources other than the unregulated artisanal mine work. 

Chouchou Namegabe and her daughter at home in New York. Photo by Svetlana Jovanovic.

Mining changed everything

Before her country began exporting its mineral resources for a global commodities market, Chouchou explains that rape did not even exist. 

“In our culture, we didn’t have clothes before the economization,” says Chouchou. “Before, in the ancient tradition, people had their nipples out with a small cloth, but there was no rape. You say because a girl is in a short dress, it will push men to rape,” she says, but it wasn’t that way in the past when partial nudity was simply a part of the culture. 

While Chouchou is tired of the impunity, the continual raping of women and children, and waiting for a response from the ICC, she still has hope:

“For those [cases] who were brought into the first 20 years ago, they ask them to bring the proof. What proof can they bring — their underwear? We hope they really take into account the seriousness of rape and sexual violence.” 

Back at Chouchou’s home in New York, I step outside with the videographer. When I come back inside, there’s another woman is in the house. Her hair is in a curly bob, and she’s wearing a sweater, leggings, and socks. She’s relaxing on the couch with the children who’ve been brought back into the room. I assume it’s Chouchou’s sister, but when I see the espadrilles thrown to the side of the front door, I realize it’s Chouchou herself. She’s removed her traditional attire and no longer resembles the embattled warrior queen, but a mum hanging with her kids, working tirelessly for justice for the women in her country.  

“#MeToo gave me hope and I’m hoping someday we have a movement like this, that will change everything.” 

Read part 1 of this 2-part series on Chouchou Namegabe’s work to help rape victims in the Congo here.

Jessica Williamson is a social impact storyteller and partnership builder who believes in the power of story to change the world. She is a writer, reporter, speaker, video producer, and on-air personality dedicated to amplifying the voices of marginalized women to create a healthy planet. She currently serves as the North American Regional Director for the World Information Transfer (WIT); an NGO in General Consultative Status with the United Nations. She urges world leaders, governments, and institutions to consider the role of women in sustainable development at global policy meetings. In her new role at Eco Chick, Jessica aims to share women’s stories and give NGO’s platform by connecting them to mainstream audiences.