U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton promoted democracy in the war-devastated country of Congo on Monday and drew attention to an epidemic of sexual assaults in its violence-torn east.
While in the Congolese capital, Clinton will visit a hospital founded by former NBA star Dikembe Mutumbo, a native of Congo, and will hold a town hall meeting.
On Tuesday, she plans to go to Goma where she will meet victims of horrific rapes and other sexual crimes committed by the military and rebel groups, many of which are fighting over the region’s vast mineral wealth.
Clinton said in Kenya last week that she insisted on visiting Goma despite her staff’s security concerns “to speak out against the unspeakable violence against women and girls in eastern Congo. It is the worst example of man’s inhumanity to women and women are being used in conflicts.”
On Monday, she told reporters traveling with her that she also wants to look at ways “to prevent the mining from basically funding a lot of these militias that are keeping the fighting going with all the attendant human rights abuses.”
The United Nations has recorded at least 200,000 cases of sexual violence in eastern Congo since conflict erupted in 1996, at its height drawing in a half dozen of the country’s neighbors, each greedy for a share of the region’s rich mineral resources.
A 2003 peace deal reduced the fighting but both the army and rebel groups continue to attack villages and kill civilians.
More than 5 million have been killed and hundreds of thousands left homeless over the past decade, with brutalities commonplace in rural communities, including gang rapes, that have led to unwanted pregnancies, serious injuries and death to tens of thousands of women and girls.
Earlier this month a leading human rights group demanded that Congo crack down on rampant sexual violence perpetrated by military generals and other top officers.
Citing U.N. data that show 7,703 cases of sexual violence by the army reported last year, Human Rights Watch said the Congolese authorities have failed to prevent the attacks, most of which were on adolescent girls.
The group called on the U.N. Security Council to take “tough measures,” including travel bans, and other sanctions against individuals or governments that commit or condone sexual violence in Congo and elsewhere.
On Friday, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called for global action to stop government forces and armed groups from using sexual violence “like a grenade or a gun” to pursue their goals, including in Congo, Chad, Sudan, Burundi, Liberia and Sierra Leone.
Clinton’s Congo stop is the latest in an 11-day journey through Africa to promote development and good governance and underscore the Obama administration’s commitment to the world’s poorest continent.
She arrived in Congo from Angola, South Africa and Kenya. She will also visit Nigeria, Liberia and Cape Verde.