Call for Action to Stop Fighting in DR Congo

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Experts on the Democratic Republic of the Congo are calling for assistance and strong international leadership to prevent further deterioration of the devastating humanitarian situation in the country's eastern provinces. Panel discussion hosted by Women for Women International in New York Thursday.

Congo Panel, Women for Women International Oct 2008

Without this civilians won't find protection and peace.

Experts on the Democratic Republic of the Congo are calling for assistance and strong international leadership to prevent further deterioration of the devastating humanitarian situation in the country's eastern provinces.

Tony Gambino, an expert on development issues in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, said in New York at a panel discussion hosted by Women for Women International that the five permanent members of the UN Security Council need to take a 'No More Victims' approach towards the humanitarian crisis in Congo. "Because it is clear that the Congolese authorities are incapable of protecting the population, we need to get engaged. The universally accepted principle of 'the responsibility to protect' applies to Congo and we must follow through on it," Gambino said.

Gambino is the author of 'Congo: Securing Peace, Sustaining Progress', a special report published this week by the Council on Foreign Relations in which he argues that the U.S. should focus on ending rampant violence and insecurity in eastern Congo and promoting broad-based environmentally sound sustainable development. "The current UN mission in eastern Congo needs the necessary personnel and mandate to fulfill its central role in stopping rampant violence and helping to build capable security forces," Gambino said on Thursday. "Without this civilians won't find protection and peace."

Tens of thousands of civilians are currently fleeing a rebel advance on the provincial capital of Goma, bringing the number of recently displaced people to over 150,000. Neither the 17,000-person strong UN peacekeeping force nor the Congolese forces have been able to prevent a breakdown of the ceasefire that has brought the province close to full-scale war. The displaced are leaving behind most of their belongings and are staying in makeshift camps without access to water, food, and basic health care.

Also addressing the panel, Women for Women International Country Director Christine Karumba said that fear among women in eastern Congo is rising. Many have endured and witnessed gross sexual violence and are afraid that mass rape will further increase if the country returns to war. "The women we are working with don't want to lose what they have achieved," Karumba said. "It is very precious to them." She warned that the area would be hit by a serious food shortage if people are unable to harvest their crops due to displacement. Any loss of income would worsen the situation of the desperately poor civilian population in the eastern part of the country, Karumba added.

In the Democratic Republic of the Congo rape has been used by almost all parties of the conflict as a weapon of choice and observers have found that it is now also spreading among civilians as a means of intimidation, torture, and exercising power. The lack of protection through local law enforcement and security authorities is increasing fears of sexual violence escalating. The effects of brutal attacks on women are long-lasting and frequently leave them with severe physical and psychological problems that often remain untreated. The stigma of rape makes many survivors and their children destitute after they are rejected by their families and communities.

Mike VanRooyen, Co-Director of the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative (HHI)--which is conducting both clinical work for rape victims and research in eastern Congo--said during the panel discussion that focus group discussion with survivors have shown the need for economic support to women who are trying to rebuild their lives. The HHI research has also found that although men do not often speak out against the rape epidemic, they are deeply affected by the fact that they are unable to protect women and girls from the attacks.

Panelists agreed that perpetrators need to be brought to justice. "The climate of impunity is problematic and an obstacle to a stable peace in eastern Congo. Although the challenges of reforming and building a functioning law enforcement and justice system are huge, it will be the key of stopping violent attacks - including sexual violence - on civilians," VanRooyen added.

Since 2003, Women for Women International has served more than 18,991 Congolese women and another 102,551 family and community members in this region. Through a holistic program that includes rights awareness and life skills training, income generation assistance, and vocational and skills development, women are able to create stability and self-sufficiency amidst an otherwise chaotic and volatile environment. In 2007 alone, the program reached 9,489 women in the communities of Bukavu, Goma, Fizi and Baraka in the Kivu provinces of eastern Congo. Women for Women International also conducts Men's Leadership Training programs that aim at educating religious, traditional, and civic leaders about the consequences of sexual violence on women and whole communities, with the aim of turning men into advocates of women's rights.

For more information go to http://www.womenforwomen.org

Women for Women International, a nonprofit 501 (c) (3) organization, provides women survivors of war, civil strife and other conflicts with the tools and resources to move from crisis and poverty to stability and self-sufficiency, thereby promoting viable civil societies. Women for Women International is a Conrad N. Hilton Humanitarian Prize award winner.

Contact: Natalia Cieslik phone 1 202 492 7453

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