Catholic Relief Services’ expert on sexual and gender-based violence, Francisca Vigaud-Walsh, joined actor Ben Affleck and other advocates last week in a plea to Congress to step up its engagement in the Democratic Republic of Congo where a decades-old conflict has killed more than 3 million people since 1998.
Vigaud-Walsh, along with a panel of government officials and prominent activists including Affleck, the Enough Project’s founder John Prendergast and Cindy McCain, wife of Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz, testified before the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, and Human Rights, chaired by Rep. Chris Smith of New Jersey. The hearing, “The Democratic Republic of the Congo: Securing Peace in the Midst of Tragedy”, coincidentally took place on the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day, and at a time when rape continues to be used as a weapon of war in eastern DRC.
Speaking to the influential House panel, Vigaud-Walsh called for an increased commitment of the United States government to protect women in the DRC, and for women to hold greater power in the decision making process, especially ahead of elections scheduled for November. “We’re at a critical juncture and we’re not seeing women represented, in fact not only are they being sidelined, but they are being cast out of the process,” she said, speaking of the DRC. “If women do not represent themselves and their needs … then who will?”
Vigaud-Walsh has spent a significant amount of time in the DRC over the past several years. While acknowledging certain positive steps by the U.S. government in the DRC, she urged the U.S. to do more to eradicate sexual and gender-based violence, ensure the protection of women and girls and all civilians, and to end the conflict.
Following testimony from U.S. government witnesses, including Donald Y. Yamamoto from the U.S. State Department and Rajakumari Jandhyala from USAID (U.S. Agency for International Development), Affleck used his star power to advocate on behalf of his own Eastern Congo Initiative and to call on the U.S. to appoint a special envoy to the Great Lakes region.
“In this time of heightened concern over federal spending, some suggest that austerity demands we turn a blind eye to the crisis in Congo,” Affleck said. “I believe nothing could be more misguided. It would simply be penny-wise and pound-foolish to allow the Congo to again fall into a state of crisis.”
On the heels of Affleck’s testimony and speaking to the work of the Catholic Church in the DRC, Vigaud-Walsh recounted her own experiences with survivors of sexual violence seeking help from the Church.
“In eastern DRC, I’ve repeatedly come across rape survivors who have walked many kilometers from their displacement camps to seek support at the nearest parish,” she said. In her written testimony, she urged leaders to take measures against rape as a weapon of war and to respond to the rampant insecurity in the country. “Even within the context of scarce resources, there are cost-effective measures that the U.S. government can implement to reduce the scourge of sexual violence in the DRC and respond to the context of insecurity, conflict and poor governance that promote rape and violence as a weapon of war against the people of eastern Congo.”
Vigaud-Walsh’s testimony to Congress was followed by an equally powerful photo exhibit on Capitol Hill that same week, highlighting the lives and challenges in another war-torn country, Sudan. Emerging from decades of civil war between northern and southern Sudan, southern Sudanese overwhelmingly voted for independence from the North in a January referendum that was—against all expectations—peaceful and fair.
With southern Sudan scheduled to become its own nation in July, Africa’s newest country is facing a number of challenges, including a lack of infrastructure, health and other essential services and continued unrest. The thought-provoking photos, taken by renowned photographer Karen Kasmauski, who has shot 25 major stories for National Geographic magazine, were intended to give staff and members of Congress a glimpse of the development programs run by CRS, such as agriculture, water, health, and education, and how they are a means for building peace in Sudan.
“While there was a great deal of world attention focused on southern Sudan in January during the referendum vote, the about-to-be new nation has now pretty much slipped off the radar screen. This is especially true in the halls of Congress where budget cutting is front and center,” said Kathleen Kahlau, who covers Sudan on Capitol Hill for CRS. “The photo exhibit on CRS’ peacebuilding efforts in southern Sudan provided a much-needed reminder that there is still much to be done to assist the people of southern Sudan to build a truly peaceful, stable, and self-sufficient society.”
Reported by Kim Pozniak, CRS communications officer for sub-Saharan Africa.
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