Twenty-one years ago, I was active in the movement to end apartheid and free Nelson Mandela.
While the apartheid regime was crumbling, the crack epidemic was beginning in South Los Angeles and inner city communities around the nation. I made a conscious decision to turn my activism away from Southern Africa and dedicate my time to addressing the devastation taking place at home. The Community Coalition, which plays such a vital role in our neighborhoods today, was born out of that crisis.
Twenty-one years later as a new member of Congress, I sat in a hearing conducted by the Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health and Human Rights of the Foreign Affairs Committee in Washington, DC. The hearing was held on International Women’s Day, and the subject was the Democratic Republic of Congo, a country first colonized by Belgium, and whose first President Patrice Lumumba was assassinated with the help of the United States government. The president that the U.S. helped install, Colonel Joseph Mobuto, began years of plunder and civil war. Conflict minerals and gold have made some people in the nation very wealthy, while destroying the lives of the unaccounted many.
Most heart wrenching, Congolese women and girls have experienced unspeakable hardships; the arc of history in the Congo has proven especially cruel to the mothers and daughters of the nation.
Bodily harm. Disease. Rape. Death.
The cycle of life in this central African nation ended in many cases in inhumane ways.
Conflict and violence in the Congo has resulted in more than 1,000 women and girls raped each month. Women make up a significant majority of the over 500,000 HIV infections in the country, and little access to basic health services.
The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) has led the effort to provide healthcare and services to Congolese women and children, especially those impacted by sexual violence. Similarly, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) coordinates effective programs for women and girls that reduce infant, child and maternal mortality rates, improve access to potable water and sanitation, and increase primary school enrollment, particularly for girls who are often denied equal access. The United States provides the lion share of the budget for United Nation-led UNICEF assistance to the Congo.
Unfortunately, the new Republican majority in Congress is calling for drastic reductions in U.S. support for the United Nations. These reductions can potentially affect UNICEF aid to the Congo.
We cannot sit back and allow an agenda that calls for U.S. divestment in the United Nations to happen.
Five million people have died as a result of war, disease, or starvation in the Congo, making this conflict the deadliest one in the world since World War II. The nation is ranked among the bottom 10 countries worldwide on a range of basic social quality of life indicators. Health indicators, in particular, are among the worst in the world and reflect hardships resulting from many years of conflict and significant deterioration of health services throughout the country.
Presidential elections are slated for the Congo in November and unrest is to be expected. Our government must step up to the plate and appoint a special envoy to the Congo.
While I sat in the hearing on International Women’s Day, 180,000 women in the Congo marched to demonstrate their power and commitment to peace, prosperity, and a more hopeful future.
Our government and our community must march with these women. The struggle continues.
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