I represented Stop the Silence: Stop Child Sexual Abuse at a Congo/Women photography exhibition, reception and panel was held on Capitol Hill on March 5, 2009. This enlightening event was produced by Art Works Projects and the Ellen Stone Belic Institute for the Study of Women and Gender in Arts and Media.
Congo/ Women Portraits of War: The Democratic Republic of the Congo is an international photography and educational campaign to raise awareness of the widespread sexual violence facing women and girls in the Congo. The exhibition featured powerful life-size photographs that conveyed the strength and courage of Congolese women, with accompanying essays that describe the impact of the crisis from a range of perspectives.
The exhibition featured 38 images of international photographers Lynsey Addario, Marcus Bleasdale, Ron Haviv and James Nachtwey. The images verified the faces of women and children who have survived the ongoing sexual violence, the impact of war on women, the physical actuality of the crisis, and the specific cases of individuals who were personally affected by, and who bore witness to, the region’s intense and excessive violence.
The exhibition began through a sound system with the voices of victimized Congolese children and women, from age five to 70 years old. Following the introduction were several featured speakers, who not only shared a message of hope for the Congolese women and sentiments of disgust to those who have turned a deaf ear on the issue, but they also provided action steps for the public.
Dr. Roger Luhiriri, a physician at Panzi Hospital in the Democratic Republic of Congo, shared social issues that highly impacted the Congo. He emphasized that while he has medically assisted women in the Congo, he cannot understand the vaginal torture the women have endured. Congolese women have had objects, like guns and knives, inserted into their vaginas. The doctor even stated that some women have been shot with a gun through their vagina.
Sylvie Maunga Mbanga, a Human Rights Lawyer and former program coordinator for the Interchurch Organization for Development Cooperation (DRC), shared a powerful eye-witness account of sexual violence in the Congo with a focus on the economic and legal issues. She said the Congo needs legal aid because judges in the Congo are no longer motivated and perpetrators, who have international arrest warrants, have not been caught.
Mbanga stated that “Women need to be integrated back into the economy.” She also said that after the region is given support, military personnel come and take it back again. In addition, Congolese women have their property taken, then they are taken in a forest, raped and left to return to nothing.
The cycle of violence has caused Congolese women to lose hope after being raped more than two or three times. Mbanga shared the painful feelings of Congolese women knowing that they can no longer contribute to society because of “vaginal destruction”, a newly formed medical term in the Congo by doctors like Roger Luhiriri.
“15 year olds are raping 50 year olds. 50 year old men are raping five year old girls,” Mbanga exclaimed in her cry out for help.
John Prendergast, Co-chair of the Enough Project, emphatically explained that while five million lives have been extinguished in the Congo, we did not gather to mourn or regret the events—we gathered to ensure that everyone knew the essential role they have to play.
Prendergast called action from Obama, electronic companies and the United States Congress. First, he said that President Obama has supplied a presidential envoy for several countries—the Congo needs their own. In addition, the Congo needs a representative who will work for the Congolese people and who reports to Obama.
Next, Prendergast described the conflict in eastern Congo, also known as the deadliest since World War II. He said the war is fueled by a multi-million dollar trade in minerals by electronic companies, who gain millions by trading three minerals: tin, tantalum, and tungsten (also known as the Three T’s). This money assists armed groups with purchasing weapons and continuing their massive violence against civilians. These materials eventually wind up in electronic devices, such as cell phones, portable music players, and computers, including those sold here in the United States. Because of the lack of minerals supply, American consumers continue to indirectly finance armed groups in the Congo.
Finally, Prendergast beckoned Congress to introduce legislation to help in this effort because electronic companies cannot be trusted to stop buying minerals. Prendergast stated that we have inspired movements before for people, women, peace, the environment, etc., but we now have to start a movement for the Congo because “this is not [a] mission impossible.”
Other speakers included U.S. Representative, Jan Schakowsky, and Stephen Lewis, Co-Director of AIDS-Free World and former U.N. Special Envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa.
The Congo/ Women Photography Exhibit will continue on a two-year tour beginning in North America, Europe and Africa, visiting universities, civic centers and community groups. Upcoming exhibition locations include New York, London and Brussels. At each location representatives from organizations committed to humanitarian and gender-based violence work will join in efforts to create change and support advocacy.