The run-up to election day is probably not the best time to be trying to focus local attention on sexual atrocities in Congo.
But a seemingly remote issue does have relevance to Vermont. And it is also resonating nationally thanks to a campaign conceived at St. Michael’s College .
“Burlington is a refugee resettlement community, so the reality of what is happening in Congo has been brought to Vermont,” says Cathleen Wilson, director of the Women’s Rape Crisis Center . “It has affected women we know and work with. It doesn’t feel remote to me at all.”
The Burlington-based crisis center has signed on as one of 50 chapters of Dear Hillary Campaign for the Congo , the St. Mike’s initiative that’s pressing Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to do more to end mass rapes in Congo. The campaign plans to send Clinton at least 10,000 postcards on October 26, her 63rd birthday.
“Dear Hillary,” the cards read. “Happy Birthday! As a gift to yourself and the women of the world, we ask that you make peace in eastern Congo a foreign policy priority.”
The United Nations estimates that 15,000 women were raped last year in parts of Congo where foreign armies and local militias are fighting for control of minerals that may be contained in products sold at American stores such as Radio Shack in South Burlington and Best Buy in Williston. Relief agencies calculate that as many as 5 million Congolese have died as a result of the wars arising from the 1994 genocide in nearby Rwanda.
“Eastern Congo is the worst place in the world to be a woman,” declares Kate Bailey, a St. Michael’s political science major. She and fellow St. Mike’s senior Leah Ziegler of Stowe are making use of social media to mobilize nationwide student support for Dear Hillary. They’ve succeeded in enlisting Champlain College , but not Middlebury  or the University of Vermont . Harvard has joined the movement, as have SUNY Plattsburgh and the Sisters of Mercy ministry in Burlington, which contributed $6000 to the cause. Burlington High School students have also gotten involved.
Clinton was chosen as the target of the campaign because “she’s the most powerful woman in the world,” says Laurie Gagne, director of St. Michael’s Edmundite Center for Peace & Justice. “What’s the point of having power unless it’s used to help the powerless?”
Besides, Gagne asks, “How can any woman possibly say no to this?”
The postcards, which show a sad-eyed 14-year-old Congolese girl clutching a baby, urge Clinton to enforce a law she cosponsored in the Senate in 2006 — along with the then-junior senator from Illinois, Barack Obama. Signed by President George W. Bush, the law authorizes the secretary of state to withhold U.S. funds from countries judged to be destabilizing Congo.
That would be Rwanda and Uganda, specifies Kyendamina Mukeba, a Congolese also known as Cleophace who lives in Burlington. “You must go to the source of the problem,” he says, citing UN investigations that have accused Rwanda and Uganda, both well-funded U.S. allies, of committing war crimes in Congo. Mukeba acknowledges that the gun-wielding rapists include Congolese soldiers and militia members. Victims have ranged in age from 1 to 80, according to UN investigators.
Pierre Mujomba, another refugee from Congo living in Burlington, has helped organize four Dear Hillary chapters. He has also arranged for 500 of the birthday cards to be signed by women in eastern Congo and another 100 by refugees in Europe.
“We’ve approached local Congolese with offers of help,” Gagne recounts, “but they’ve told us, ‘We’re fine. You should focus on what’s happening in Congo.’”
Which is what Gagne has been doing for the past couple of years. She organized an academic conference on Congo at St. Michael’s last February and has staged other events to promote local awareness of rampant violations of women in central Africa. After the February event, Gagne recalls, “I said to myself, ‘OK, that’s enough education. Now it’s time for action.’”
It’s also time to “go beyond Band-Aids,” Gagne adds.
She applauds Clinton for announcing a $17 million program to aid Congolese women who have been raped. The top U.S. diplomat made that pledge during a visit last year to eastern Congo, where she met a woman who had been gang-raped while eight months pregnant. “I’ve been in a lot of very difficult and terrible settings,” Clinton said on that occasion. “And I was just overwhelmed by what I saw.”
“We don’t need more aid for women after the fact,” Gagne says. “We need to stop the rapes from happening in the first place.”