Friday, August 21, 2009

Clinton Defends African Women

More than a week after her tour of African nations, some are still questioning Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s focus on sexual and gender-based violence used as a tool of conflict in eastern Congo. Certainly, it is a viable entree to a discussion of the impact of the ongoing conflict there. However, Secretary Clinton also has a longstanding interest in the welfare of women, especially in developing countries. Given the dire situation women in eastern Congo are facing today, it is surely justifiable for her to focus on this issue in that country at this time.

As the Secretary said before her visit, women in eastern Congo and elsewhere are all too often subjected to rape as a tool of conflict. Warlords use rape to terrorize communities or as part of an overall genocidal strategy. In fact, the current military operation in eastern Congo has led to increased incidents of rape of vulnerable women by Congolese soldiers. An August 10 article in the Washington Post quotes Congolese soldiers as complaining that they are lonely and unable to afford prostitutes so they use local women to satisfy their needs. It is just this kind of callous disregard for the welfare of women that Secretary Clinton is targeting.

She is not alone in focusing on this issue. Former United Nations Under Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs Jan Egeland told a high-level meeting on sexual violence against women in New York in June that “if sexual violence is not fully addressed in ceasefires and peace processes, there will be no peace for women.” According to the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM), since the end of the Cold War, only 10 times out of about 300 peace agreements has sexual violence been addressed: Uganda, Sudan/Darfur, Nepal, Indonesia/Aceh, Sudan/Nubia Mountains, Burundi, the Philippines, Chiapas (Mexico), Guatemala and the Democratic Republic of Congo. As we have seen in Congo, mention in an agreement doesn’t necessarily mean effective preventative action.

But rape is not the only debilitating result of conflict for women. For example, in southern Sudan, women are concerned for their fate if conflict results from the tense political process involving the February 2010 national elections and the 2011 referendum on southern Sudanese independence. Moreover, despite an agreement to reserve 25% of government posts for women, some provinces cannot identify enough literate women to fill these positions. The 22-year civil war disrupted education, especially for girls, and has resulted in women between the ages of 15-24 having an 84% illiteracy rate. Furthermore, southern Sudan has one of the world’s highest maternal mortality rates with 12,700 deaths per 100,000 live births because of the lack of adequate medical care in the emerging southern region of Sudan.

Conflict in Africa poses an extraordinarily high cost for women, who are, after all, the building block of families. If the status and conditions for women are unstable, so too will be the nation. Some people recognize that and try to address it – no matter what others may understand or not about the critical nature of this issue.

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