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Thursday, 04 June 2009 09:26

Are you a Mac or PC? I'd rather be Rape-Free: Sexual Violence and the Congo Conflicts Mineral Act

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By Alyssa Morin

Many American consumers think they are shopping responsibly when they bring their canvas bags to the grocery store, opt for recycled paper towels, or buy organic chicken.  But what, beyond ease of use, flashy packaging, or catchy commercials, influences us the most when choosing which electronics brand to buy? Few consider whether our purchases are indirectly encouraging the surging violence, including the epidemic-level of rape, being waged in Congo.

On May 13, 2009, a joint Congressional subcommittee hearing was held on Confronting Rape and Other Forms of Violence against Women in Conflict Zones Spotlight: DRC and Sudan, in part to shed light on the link between the electronics industry, illegal mining, and the atrocities against women in the Congo that the media has largely ignored.  It has been estimated that in the last 10 years, 50,000 to 100,000 women and girls have been raped in the Congo, where brutal sexual violence has become a weapon in the war over illegal mining for minerals like tin, tungsten, and tantalum, used in cell phones, laptops, and other electronics. 

As rival militias from Uganda, Rwanda, and the DRC fight over mineral-rich land, soldiers use rape as a way to clear inhabitants out of an area through fear, the destruction of community and families, and the intentional spread of sexually-transmitted diseases like HIV/AIDS.  The armed groups then sell their illegally-obtained minerals, which are eventually turned into the highly-valuable metals that make up much of the electronics equipment that our Western economies demand.  The supply chain is long and complicated with many a middleman and, while most electronics companies have official policies prohibiting the use of conflict minerals, there is very little follow-through on the part of the companies to ensure they are complying.

Panelists including Eve Ensler, founder of V-Day and author of the Vagina Monologues, journalist Chouchou Namegabe Nabintu, and John Prendergast, co-founder of the Enough Project, spoke at the hearing about the atrocities in Congo and the need for a new solution, beyond humanitarian aid, from the United States and United Nations.  "We spend billions of dollars a year on humanitarian efforts and peacekeeping, while the root causes of the violence remain inadequately addressed," Prendergast explained, "Consumers in the United States, Europe, and Asia are the ultimate end-users [of] conflict minerals, [and] we inadvertently fuel the war through our purchases of these electronics products."

Prendergast urged Congress to support the Congo Conflicts Mineral Act, which was introduced last month by Senators Dick Durbin [D-IL], Sam Brownback [R-KS], and Russ Feingold [D-IL] and would require U.S.-registered companies that trade with Congo to finally investigate and disclose the location and legality of their source mines.  The panelists further suggested that electronics companies be encouraged to label their products as "conflict-mineral free," or, as Eve Ensler put it, "rape-free" in order to make it easier for consumers to make informed choices.