Rape victims in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) are being forced to work in conditions of slavery in mines producing the coltan and tin ore used in cell phones, jewelry, and laptops. The US is the largest consumer of such minerals, and continues to depend on these resources as technology expands.
The market for the resources is huge. Last year, around 6.6 million pounds of tantalum was used worldwide, 60% going directly into the electronics industry. Such a dependency has led rebel groups in the Congo enslaving entire villages to extract these minerals to export for warlord profit, at an average of $20 million a month. It is very difficult to track the process of trading back to the Congolese rebels, so businesses cannot be held accountable for perpetuating the problem of ‘conflict’ minerals through their purchase of them. Selling coltan is not illegal though, and is valued at $6 billion industry coming from legitimate mining operations in Australia, Canada, and Brazil. But as the demand for this “magic dust” took off, a more menacing market took off in the Congo. The warring rebel groups, many of which are funded by neighboring Rwanda and Uganda, are exploiting coltan mining to help finance a bloody civil war now in its third year.
“There is a direct link between human rights abuses and the exploitation of resources in areas in the DRC occupied by Rwanda and Uganda,” says Suliman Baldo, a senior researcher in the Africa division at Human Rights Watch, a New York-based nongovernmental organization that tracks human-rights abuses worldwide.
Approximately 98% of east Congo’s mines have some involvement with one militia or another—either the militia control mines and coerce people to work in them or demand “taxes” from workers. Many of the workers are children, and some estimates say that as much as 30% of children in the northeastern region have dropped out of school to participate in the mining of these minerals. These children earn up to a dollar a day, but their families depend on this money for survival. The rest of the civilian population, especially women, are terrorized into submission through village burnings and rape in a type of organized chaos by the rebels who disseminate the minerals.
“If you choose to get food from the field you have to accept that you’re going to be raped,” said Patience Kengwa, 30, who works at Kamituga gold mines.
There are over one million displaced individuals, and an estimated 200,000 women have been raped. East Congo was recently deemed one of the worst places to be a woman after a study in June by the American Journal of Public Health found that the rate of rape in this area is equivalent to around 48 an hour. The US continues to be the largest importer of these minerals, as 8% of the tantalaum ore imported into the United States in 1999 came from the Congo, and that percent doesn’t include the ore imported from Rwanda and Uganda that may have originated in the Congo.
Aronson, David. “How Congress Devastated Congo” New York Times (2011): Op-Ed A.0. 19. LexisNexis Academic. 26 Aug 2011 <http://www.lexisnexis.com/hottopics/lnacademic/?>
Essick, Kristi. “Guns, Money and Cell Phones.” The Industry Standard (2011) <http://www.globalissues.org/article/442/guns-money-and-cell-phones>
Githaiga, Nyambura. “Central Africa: Mineral Smuggling Threatens Regional Security” Institute for Security Studies (2011). LexisNexis Academic. 27 Sept. 2011 <http://www.lexisnexis.com/hottopics/lnacademic/?>
Mwenga, Diane Taylor. “International: Congo rape victims forced to work in mines” The Guardian (2011): 30. LexisNexis Academic. 27 Sept. 2011 <http://www.lexisnexis.com/hottopics/lnacademic/?>
Student Researchers: Megan Kovach and Stacey Way
Faculty Instructor: Kevin Howley
Evaluator: Mac Dixon-Fyle, Ph.D., African Studies