How your mobile phone fuels rape in Congo
A shocking new film links consumer electronics to the horrifying conflict in Congo, a country which experts say could be on the brink of a savage new war.
The film, called Unwatchable, shows the brutal gang rape of an English teenager and is designed to shock. Those who have seen it can testify to its success. Most cry or are left speechless. A few have been physically sick. What makes it worse is that although it is a work of fiction, the crimes depicted are real. They happen all the time, every day in fact – just not in the UK.
The country in question is the Democratic Republic of Congo (or DRC), where rape has become a weapon in a brutal 15-year civil war. It is estimated that around half a million men, women and children have been sexually assaulted since the war began. The attacks are very violent, and leave lasting physical and psychological injuries from which many victims never recover.
Despite the ongoing horror, the situation in Congo receives limited international attention. That is why the makers of the new film chose to set their nightmarish re-enactment in the UK, hoping to shock audiences into action.
Because, although the DRC seems remote to many, most people have a more direct link to the violence than they might think. How? Much of the fighting in Congo is over the country's vast mineral wealth, as factions compete for control over valuable mines. The minerals these provide are in high demand, not least from manufacturers of mobile phones and other electronics, which most of us use every day.
By buying minerals from the DRC, phone makers are helping to perpetuate the cycle of rape and violence. Now, campaigners are asking people to help bring about change, by petitioning manufacturers to switch to 'conflict-free' sources.
Will this be enough? Not on its own. Congo's fate depends on many different factors, not least the outcome of national elections coming up this November. A recent briefing from charity Human Rights Watch warned that the country stands at a dangerous crossroads, with violent political rhetoric on the increase and the uneasy official peace between the main factions looking more and more fragile.
A boycott of Congolese 'conflict minerals' by phone manufacturers would help. But were the makers of Unwatchable right in resorting to shock tactics in order to achieve it? The film is so horrible that most news outlets refuse even to link to it. Few people are willing to share the film with their friends – a crucial part of making a campaign take off.
But director Marc Hawker said the tactics were necessary to get through to 'desensitised' Western audiences. 'This is a hard film to watch,' he said, 'but it is nothing compared to what is going on in the Congo on a daily basis. Our aim was to shatter the noise of everyday life and spearhead the campaign with a film that can't be ignored.'
- How shocking should charity campaigns be allowed to be?
- How much should people care about what happens in Congo? Why?
- Write and deliver a parliamentary speech arguing either for or against a boycott of Congolese minerals.
- Storyboard your own campaign film for a charity cause that you care about. How do you get people interested and motivated to act?
Some People Say...
“Shock tactics are just emotional manipulation and should be banned.”
What do you think?
Q & A
- Tell me more about the fighting in Congo.
- Some call it 'Africa's World War'. It is partly tribal in nature, with a Hutu government fighting Tutsi militias. Neighbouring countries have been heavily involved, supporting one side or the other.
- Those names sound familiar.
- They should. The Hutus and Tutsis were the two sides in the Rwandan genocide.
- And what's happening now?
- Tutsi militias have been incorporated into the Congolese army. They remain independent in practice, however, and war could easily return.
- Confusingly, there are two countries called 'Congo' in Africa. One is the 'Republic of the Congo' (aka 'Congo-Brazzaville') and the other is the 'Democratic Republic of the Congo' (aka 'Congo-Kinshasa').
- Conflict minerals
- Congo is rich in certain rare minerals that are essential for the manufacture of electronic components. These minerals are now very valuable, and earn Congolese warlords tens of millions of pounds per year. The 'conflict' part of the name comes from the idea of 'conflict-diamonds', which fuelled bloodshed in countries like Sierra Leone.
- A huge problem for charity fund-raisers is that over time, images of suffering lose their power to shock. Western audiences are so accustomed to being bombarded with appeals for their sympathy that they sometimes lose sympathy.