Aug. 11, 2009 -- Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrived today in what is described by some as the most dangerous place in the world to be a woman.
She met with rape victims in eastern Congo where sexual violence is often used as a tool of war, describing the encounter as an "incredibly emotional, overwhelming experience."
When Rwandan refugees and rebels fled the country's genocide in the early 1990s, they crossed the border into what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and invaded the eastern region. There the embers of genocide continued to smolder, stoked by weak government and security, as well as fights for control of valuable mineral deposits in the area.
Clinton visited Goma, the area's capital, where millions have been killed in the years since and thousands are victims of sexual violence each month. According to one estimate, the conflict is now bloodier than any since World War II.
During her visit, Clinton hoped to shine a light on the use of rape as a tool of war. To that end, America's top diplomat announced the United States would provide $17 million "to prevent and respond to gender and sexual violence in the DRC."
"We want to banish the problems of sexual violence into the dark past where it belongs," Clinton said at a roundtable with NGOs and activists against sexual and gender-based violence.
Humanitarian organizations estimate that more than 500,000 women have been raped throughout the raging conflict. Clinton told students Monday in a town hall meeting held in Kinshasa, the capital of the DRC, that an average of 13,000 women are raped per month in the country, and she urged them to take the lead in stopping the violence.
Clinton today toured humanitarian facilities in Goma run by United Nations agencies and non-governmental organizations. She also visited the Mugunga 1 camp for internally-displaced persons where she met with doctors and camp leaders, and asked them about their needs for the facility. The camp is home to 18,711 people, 69 percent of whom are children. There are more than 800,000 displaced people in Eastern Congo.
There are also 17,000 U.N. peacekeepers stationed in the Congo. The United Nations' mission in Congo, also known as MONUC, is the largest peacekeeping force in the world, but often comes under criticism for being ineffective.
The Congo Advocacy Coalition, a group made up of 88 humanitarian organizations working in the region, have called for MONUC to be more accountable to protecting the civilian population. There have also been documented case of sexual abuse committed by the peacekeepers themselves.
MONUC officials have claimed that with so many armed groups fighting, including the Congolese Armed Forces who often act as their own rogue militia, they are peacekeeping in a place where there's still very little peace to keep.
Despite switches in alliances between rebel groups and government forces over the years, mass rapes continue to be a common denominator. It is not unusual to find women who have been the victims of every rebel group, including the army.
Secretary Clinton Reflects on Her Experience
On the plane to Nigeria, her next stop after visiting Goma, Clinton reflected on her visit.
"I've been in a lot of very difficult and terrible settings, for a lot of years. And I was just overwhelmed by what I saw, both in the camp and in the conversation I had with the two women who met with us," she told reporters.
"We met with two women who had just been incredibly, brutally, horribly attacked and suffered extreme injuries, and thanks to that hospital are at least alive," Clinton said, describing the violent rapes of the two women.
One young woman was eight months pregnant when she was raped. The baby died in the attack and the mother was left for dead until people finally came to help. Since the nearest hospital was 85 kilometers away, her rescuers had to cut the baby out with a razor blade and cover her wounds with grass so she would not bleed to death en route.
The other woman was raped and mutilated by her attackers after they killed her husband and four children, Clinton said.