A Fair Stake in the Ground

Why keeping women away from Congo’s mines -- which are rife with exploitation and sexual violence -- could do more harm than good.

BUKAVU, Democratic Republic of Congo — Bembeleza Mungo Akonkwa, 41, cradles her infant son and hunches slightly. "I have so much back pain," she says, sitting in the backroom of a hotel restaurant in Congo's South Kivu province. "I have pain in my uterus. So much pain. I'm unable to walk or to carry big things."

It's worse when she menstruates; her periods last for two weeks and leave her barely able to stand. There's no money for a doctor.

"I don't know what's wrong," she says. "It just hurts." 

Akonkwa's old job, hauling minerals and supplies up and down the hills of the Marok mine in the eastern Congo, left her physically debilitated. The pain also means she can no longer easily work. That's a big problem: With 11 children and no husband (he ran away), the $2 a day she earned from carrying 100 lbs. packs kept her family afloat. The infant, she says, is almost two -- but he's so malnourished and small that he looks like he's closer to nine months old.

A few years ago, Akonkwa had a particularly unproductive day hauling supplies, and she was on her way home when a miner spotted her and offered her $2 for sex. Unsure of how she was going to feed her children that night, she agreed.

"And that's where I got pregnant with this child I have in front of me," she says.

Akonkwa is one of hundreds of thousands of women who work in and around Congo's mines, sometimes extracting minerals directly but more often cleaning, hauling, panning, and processing materials or engaging in secondary economic activities like cooking or selling food to miners, almost always under tremendously exploitative conditions. These same mines have helped sustain eastern Congo's 20-year-long conflict -- they're a source of political power and economic support for whoever controls them. For smaller-scale artisanal mines, that control is usually asserted by one of the many militia groups (even though large, multinational corporations technically own the title to many of them) who operate with impunity.

Although violence against and exploitation of civilians is rife in Congo's conflict -- most notoriously, the rape of women -- it is particularly atrocious around mining sites. In addition to being treated as packhorses, women who need access to the mining sites to sell food or other goods have to negotiate permission from site owners, who routinely demand sex as part of the cost of entry. Men who work in and around the mines also frequently rape women and girls. Child marriage, which is uncommon throughout most of Congo, happens with regularity in mining areas.

If you talk to Washington policymakers or Congo's increasing number of celebrity advocates, the solution to the endemic violence that women like Akonkwa face is regulation of conflict minerals, including gold and the "3Ts" (tin, tantalum, and tungsten) that are used in consumer electronics like laptops and smartphones. Groups such as the Enough Project, a human rights organization focused on Sudan and Congo, emphasize that non-transparent mineral supply chains in Congo mean that "American consumers have no way to ensure that their purchases are not financing armed groups that regularly commit atrocities, including mass rape." They push for corporate due diligence. "There is good news," the Enough Project's Raise Hope for Congo website states. "Because we as electronics consumers are tied so directly to the problem, we can actually play a role in ending the violence."

That message has also reached Congress. The Dodd-Frank Act, passed in 2010, requires any company that does business in the United States or trades on its stock exchanges to disclose the origins of the conflict minerals they use; if the company sources those minerals from Congo, it has to submit an annual due diligence report to the Securities and Exchange Commission.

There's no question that the Congolese mineral trade abets sexual violence and other human rights violations, and that the Congolese people would greatly benefit from regulation and transparency of mining (as well justice for survivors of rape and other crimes). But the political narrative about women and mines is a narrow and sometimes manipulative one: Stories of abuse draw attention to a pressing problem, but there is little subsequent discussion of how to empower women as economic and political actors in the development of Congo's mining sector.   

"Some advocacy groups have largely used the sexual violence phenomena as a hook to bring people into the larger conflict mineral issue," says Joanne Lebert, director of the Great Lakes Program for Partnership for Africa Canada. "They're drawing on emotive responses to something absolutely horrific, but there is little follow through. Everything having to do with gender outside of sexual violence is just dropped."

If there is follow-through, at a local level, it is often guided by long-standing and limited assumptions about the sort of work women should be doing. "I think that the fight should be to enable or to empower women in what they are able to do," says Justin Kabanga, the national coordinator of Congo's Centre d'Assistance Médico-Psychosociale ("Center for Medical-Psychosocial Assistance," or CAMPS) who also works closely with the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative. Women would be better off doing the traditional female labor of small-scale farming, he says, so his organization focuses on helping women to leave the mines by purchasing and cultivating farmland. 

"The idea that women should be out of the mine sites is a widespread and widely supported view in the DRC," Lebert explains.

Ensuring that gender issues aren't so divorced from discussions about how to improve Congo's mines is critical. These mines will continue to be drivers of the country's economy, even after conflict, and Congolese women deserve a fair stake in their country's future.

* * *

The United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) estimates that Congo has some $26 trillion worth of untapped mineral resources, with some of the world's greatest reserves of gold, diamonds, copper -- and the aforementioned 3Ts. Very little of the economic benefits currently culled from the mines trickles down to the Congolese population, 80 percent of whom live on less than $2 per day; most of it goes to militias, international corporations, and the government in Kinshasa. The country remains one of the five poorest in the world, and women in particular bear the brunt of Congo's poverty.

International regulations, including provisions in the Dodd-Frank Act and the OECD's Due Diligence Guidance, attempt to clean up mineral supply chains and pressure demand-side companies into purchasing minerals through transparent processes. These regulations are important initial steps toward stability and violence reduction; cleaning up supply chains will certainly help to curtail bribery and some forms of labor exploitation. But this is only one piece of the puzzle. For mining reform to be truly beneficial for the Congolese population, gender dynamics in mining communities must be addressed -- dynamics that many lawmakers and other international actors do not understand well.

Women make up 30 to 50 percent of the mining sector's work force, concentrated in lower-status roles: illegal trading, carrying minerals downhill for washing, dragging tools and goods for miners' use, panning for gold, sex work, laundering clothes, and selling food. In some cases, women aren't even allowed to take on even these exhausting roles: Donatien Nakalonge, a community leader from Walungu, South Kivu, says that some local leaders have banned women from mining sites entirely because of superstitions about women bringing bad luck and concerns about distracting a mostly male work force. (He agreed that women are better off on traditional farms.) The government has also limited women's access to mines. "In response to the great attention about sexual violence, Congo passed a law stating that no pregnant women could be in the mines at all, and no women could be in the mines after a certain hour," Lebert says. "The local interpretation of that has often been that there should be no women in the mine site. Some artisanal claim holders now have rules."

Some women, however, do participate in extractive work alongside men, and they appear to fare better than women banned from mines. When Lebert's organization conducted a gender analysis of one artisanal gold mine where the claim-holder barred women from the site and compared it to another where women were engaged in the extraction of artisanal gold, they found that the women living around the exclusionary mine were more vulnerable than the group of women actually working in the other mine. The women who were excluded had to depend on their male partners for access to cash. And in order to perform secondary economic activities, like cooking or selling goods, they had to get special permission from the claim holders -- which could include sexual favors. Other women banned from mining sites have to negotiate with the Congolese military or militia groups for access.

"It amplified their vulnerabilities," Lebert says. "They didn't have access to cash, and they had to negotiate their way into certain areas in order to have access to any form of entrepreneurship."

Unfortunately, the international actors engaged in development work, advocacy, and legal reform around mining and minerals in Congo do not always grasp these realities. When asked whether international actors are identifying economic opportunities for women, empowering women financially, or bringing women to the table in efforts to clean up the supply chain, Lebert says "the answer would be no, no and no."

"There are opportunities for a meaningful inclusion of gender with the multiple audits being carried out, with the formation of monitoring committees, and with other governance tools in development," Lebert added. "Women should be enabled to participate more fully. And men, too, should be able to bring a gender lens to governance work."

Doing that requires evaluating women's roles and building their capacity to work safely in a sector with enormous growth potential. Practically, that means targeting women for education and training programs so that, for example, they could gain the skills to work as auditors along a supply chain, which, thanks to Dodd-Frank, is already seeing an enormous demand for trained inspectors. Auditors could also be taught to flag exploitation and to promote integration of women into various parts of the supply chain. Better access to credit would allow women to start small businesses outside of the mines. And women working in and around mines could (and should) also be party to conversations around how to make the mines more humane places.

Of course, a push for gender equality also means focusing on providing more basic necessities, from education to family planning. It also means bringing in gender specialists at various levels of development and across sectors to influence policies. More broadly, too, it requires a shift of perspective: Advocates and decision-makers from Washington to Kinshasa often see men as the economic actors in mining, and women as victims of violence, in particular rape. That has to change, to reflect the real nuances of what is happening on the ground.

"There may be well intentioned programs, laws, and policies, but none of it is being evaluated, certainly not from a gender perspective," Lebert says. "Their impacts are unclear, and they are often based on anecdotal and incorrect information.... We need to really be able to understand the gender and power dynamics and where women are in the supply chain and what renders them vulnerable and what creates opportunities."

"It's valuable to draw attention to the pervasive and horrific exploitation of women in the Great Lakes region," Lebert added. "But what we risk doing is not actually understanding that this is a larger issue of insecurity -- pervasive, systematic insecurity."

Minerals, of course, are not the only potential source of wealth in Congo. Another is land, and farming in Congo is traditionally women's work. But the problem with insisting that women "stay on the farm" -- beyond the troubling assumptions about gender roles -- is that there are reasons that many women are forced or seek to decamp to mines in the first place.

Some are displaced by war and crisis (as are Congolese men). Others are abandoned by their husbands and ostracized in their communities after being raped, requiring them to leave their family farms. What's more, farmers mostly exist at a subsistence level, eking out just enough to survive -- not make a serious profit. Making the move to farming as a business involves many obstacles: For instance, grain farmers are unlikely to have consistent electricity, so there is no way to run a mill regularly. That means their grains are sent across the border to be milled, then imported back into the country and sold at a higher price. But even if electricity were available, women would need credit to buy the seeds and tools that would allow them to grow enough crops to mill and sell. And here, once again, gender biases come into play.

"There's a lot that can be done in terms of livelihoods and areas where women are already strong and already working, but where they have absolutely no support," says Adrienne Stork, a project advisor working with the UNEP's Post-Conflict and Disaster Management Branch. "But nothing ever gets off the ground in terms of people being able to improve the way they work and what they do, and improving opportunities to market what they produce."

In other words, ensuring Congolese women's economic futures means better understanding and developing sectors like farming, where women have traditionally worked, while also accounting for women's interests in the country's lucrative mines.

* * *

Bembeleza Mungo Akonkwa says she would like to start a small business selling petrol. But to do that, she needs start-up capital or credit she does not have and cannot easily get. These days, she barely has enough money to get by day to day.

She tries to stay away from the mines, yet sometimes, when there is no food left, she drags herself back to Marok to carry packs up and down the mountain again. She gave up on trying to send her children to school a long time ago; she can't afford the fees. Now, she is focused purely on survival.

"I don't see a future for my children," she says. "Thinking about it gives me so much pain. I try not to, but I think about it all night." 

Spencer Platt/Getty Images


Gatekeeper of the Jihad

Meet the Jordanian cleric who's sending young men to fight and die in Syria's civil war.

MA'AN, JordanAl-Qaramseh Center is a sparsely furnished meeting hall a short ride down a potholed road in the southern Jordanian city of Ma'an. We arrived at dusk, as the call to prayer rose into the darkening sky. Across the street from the center, a small group of men headed into a mosque for the fourth prayer of the day.

Stepping out of our car, we saw the unmistakable jihadist black banner declaring that "There is no God but God" hanging from the top of the meeting hall. We had made the three-hour drive south from the capital of Amman last month at the invitation of Mohammad al-Shalabi, a leader in Jordan's Salafist jihadist movement who is better known as Abu Sayyaf. He was so eager to be interviewed that he went out of his way to invite us to attend a funeral at this center. The event was not supposed to be a sad occasion -- rather, it was billed as a ceremony to "accept congratulations" for what we learned to be the suicide operation of Muhammad Monzar Abu ‘Aoura, a 25-year old Jordanian fighter for Jabhat al-Nusra, al Qaeda's official affiliate in Syria, in the southern Syrian province of Daraa.

Abu Sayyaf had invited us to his home as part of our research project to better understand Salafist jihadist groups, and the role of political Islam more broadly in the ongoing upheaval in the Middle East. Salafist jihadists are Sunnis who adhere to a literal interpretation of Islam that allows for the use of violence to establish the Islamic state. Their extremist ideas and dedication to violence has transformed them into a force to be reckoned with across the Middle East, and the ongoing upheaval in Syria and Iraq has only strengthened their hand.

Abu Sayyaf's perspectives on Syria's civil war, just a few hours to the north, offered a window into the men who are helping to define the battle lines of Syria's war -- and also shaping the worldview of hundreds of Jordanian youth who, enticed by his promises of battles to defend Islam, willingly go to die in Syria. In the eyes of many of his critics, Abu Sayyaf himself is not a learned scholar of Islam, but he nevertheless enjoys an alarming and thus far uncontested level of local influence over young men.

President Obama came to office keen on ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and keeping the United States from becoming entangled in other military confrontations in the Middle East. The threats posed by al Qaeda's successors and other Islamist radicals, however, endure. As Syria's conflict rages, it has become a new rallying cry for a new generation of Islamist radicals. The experience these groups are gaining there and the space they have to operate poses new threats to stability in neighboring countries and beyond. More than a dozen years after 9/11, the ideology that drove al Qaeda lives on and has found new roots in the heart of the Middle East. Jabhat al-Nusra's own senior religious cleric is Sheikh Sami al-Uraydi, a Jordanian. It just may be that the next radical Islamist to grab the world's attention is currently building his support in a dusty city like Ma'an. 

During the drive to Ma'an the night before our interview, Abu Sayyaf called us to check on our status. He was eager for us to attend the funeral of the Jabhat al-Nusra suicide bomber, and direct and efficient in his instructions. This invitation was meant to demonstrate that Abu Sayyaf was actively involved in backing the foot soldiers in what has become the most dangerous conflict in the Middle East. 

Many signs along the road to the funeral employed a creative turn of the phrase "bridal procession" to describe the event, which was hailed as "the martyrdom of the hero Muhammad Monzar Abu ‘Aoura, who was martyred in a martyrdom operation in the Levant at a checkpoint against the nusayri military [an offensive term used to describe the Shiite sect from which Syrian President Bashar al-Assad hails]."

Despite these signs, the mood inside the center wasn't celebratory. The neighborhood's men sat quietly sipping on strong coffee with solemn faces, with some whispering quietly to each other.

As prayers finished, more young and old men filed into the halls and said "may God have mercy on him" to the deceased's family members, and sat along the sides of the large square room. A couple of men dressed in military fatigues came by to pay their respects.

The political and economic ties linking this corner of southern Jordan with Syria are far older than the region's current borders. Ma'an lies on the historic Hejaz Railway, which once connected the Syrian capital of Damascus with Medina in Saudi Arabia, the same railway famously bombed by Arab fighters led by the legendary Lawrence of Arabia. Ma'an has maintained its conservative cultural roots. The city is tribal and "East Banker" Jordan, the traditional heart of a country that is now majority Palestinian in origin, according to most estimates. It is also economically depressed and ignored by the center of political power: There are few job opportunities here, and we did not see a single policeman on our drive through the city.

The men gathered at the funeral were curious about our presence at this peculiar wake -- one asked: "Are you journalists with Al Jazeera?" Keen on checking our bona fides, one bearded man asked: "Are you on Twitter?" He found our accounts and began to scrutinize them as we talked about Abu ‘Aoura, the young man who lost his life in the Syrian jihad.

The jihadist was a high-school graduate, but when we asked what he did, someone said, "He was sitting at home." One of our hosts stressed that his unemployment wasn't the reason he became a suicide bomber. "Don't make the mistake that it is poverty that led him to Syria," he said. "He loved Islam and he wanted to defend his religion."

Through the decades, Jordan has seen its share of notable figures in radical Islamist movements. Jordanian analyst Hassan Abu Hanieh explained that al Qaeda's aim at the turn of the past century was to recruit more East Bankers in order to spread its ideology to Jordan's tribal areas. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the former leader of al Qaeda in Iraq, was one product of that strategy. Abu Sayyaf was another. 

* * *

Like many Salafist jihadist leaders, Abu Sayyaf has a checkered past. Abu Hanieh, himself a former jihadist, said that before Abu Sayyaf fashioned himself a sheikh, he used to get into trouble with the law. "I remember Abu Sayyaf, we first noticed him in prison," Abu Haniya said. "But he was there for criminal reasons -- not jihad."  

Abu Sayyaf would later become a government-licensed imam, but he was sentenced to death after being accused of leading riots in Ma'an in 2002, which resulted in at least seven deaths. In 2004, he was convicted of plotting attacks on Jordanian bases hosting United States military trainers, but received a special pardon in 2007 that commuted his death sentence. In 2011, Abu Sayyaf was released from prison along with other militants under a special amnesty issued by King Abdullah to commemorate the 12th anniversary of his accession.

Abu Sayyaf was at pains to underscore what we had heard the night before: Muhammad Abu ‘Aoura had gone to Syria to defend Muslims. And he wasn't the only one from Ma'an to do so. We saw other banners inviting people to celebrate the martyrdom of other young men of the city.

In follow-up conversations on the phone and the Internet with Abu Sayyaf's assistant, we learned that three more men from Ma'an had lost their lives in Syria's civil war in the past few weeks: Mohamed al-Qaramsah, 24; Abdullah al-Qaramsah, 27; and Ouday Kreeshan, 23. Both Abdullah and Ouday were recruits in Jordan's Civil Defense Services, the country's civilian emergency and disaster relief corps. Abu Sayyaf claimed that "at least 1,800" men from Jordan have gone to fight in Syria, a figure of which he was immensely proud. 

Abu Sayyaf's number one priority was rallying support for the jihadist cause in Syria, whose civil war has sent at least 1 million refugees streaming into Jordan. He claimed that the Salafists had at least 10,000 members and supporters in Jordan. "The Syrian people -- the Sunnis fighting the Shiites -- called on Muslims for help, but all of the Muslims let them down except us," he explained.

Top Jordanian officials dispute Abu Sayyaf's figures for the Jordanians fighting in Syria and the Salafists in the country. Abu Sayyaf accuses the Jordanian government, in turn, of adopting a passive approach toward the Syrian war. "It never called on people to go fight jihad in Syria, but it left people alone to an extent," he said. "Those who would fight and come back wouldn't be punished."

While Abu Sayyaf is virulently anti-American, he is willing to accept the principle that the enemy of his enemy could be his friend, at least temporarily. For that reason, he does not oppose American efforts to arm the Syrian rebels. "I said this before and some people opposed me. But we are with any power that removes the Assad regime," he said.

He was doubtful that the U.S. government would get involved in the Syrian conflict now, because of its hostility toward Islamist groups like Jabhat al-Nusra. The West will continue to support the Free Syrian Army, he argued, but they "won't support [Jabhat al-Nusra and other Islamists] -- it is impossible for them to remove [Assad's] oppressive regime and bring in, in their view, a terrorist regime."

For now, just getting all the Syrian rebel groups to coordinate their efforts has proved to be a herculean task. Syria has become the new rallying cry for Islamist extremists of all stripes: These days, the media and government officials around the world use the broad label "al Qaeda" to describe a phenomenon that defies simple categories. This disarray is on full display in Syria: The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), Jabhat al-Nusra, the Islamic Front -- these are all different group struggling for preeminence in Syria's jihadist sphere. 

Abu Sayyaf tried to explain the differences between Syria's Salafist jihadist groups, saying that all of them essentially had the same creed (manhaj) but that their "political" outlooks differed. For example, a main point of contention between ISIL and other groups was on implementing punishment for violations of Islamic law. Groups like Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic Front favored a gradualist approach, believing that people could not be punished without first being educated. "The Islamic State [ISIL] has a different point of view -- either you are with us or against us," said Abu Sayyaf.

He noted that Jabhat al-Nusra, the group with which he most closely coordinates when young Jordanian men go to Syria, is different because it has made a concerted effort to embed itself in Syria's social fabric. "It is interacting with society and using schools," Abu Sayyaf said. "If they see a mixed gender school, then they might isolate it. They do not immediately repress it -- they try to educate people and tell them what is halal or haram. They don't implement hudood [the strict criminal punishments of Islamic law] right away."

Abu Sayyaf held out the hope that Syria's various Salafist groups could reconcile and coordinate.  He believed that they all had the same basic worldview, after all, and this worldview wasn't all that disconnected from the ideology of al Qaeda. He blamed the open debate occurring in both physical and online space for the disorder. "Today we have the Internet ... you can listen to any sheikh you like

on the Internet."

In our conversation, Abu Sayyaf also lamented last year's coup in Egypt and dismissed the possibility of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a pipe dream. But his focus kept returning to Syria, which he sees as central in the battle to defend Islam from its enemies. In the jihadist "day after" scenario for when Assad falls, Abu Sayyaf envisions a Syrian Islamic state to which the world's jihadists and other Muslims would flock. Jihadists had a similar dream for Afghanistan after the Russian withdrawal in 1989, but that country's remoteness meant that only the most dedicated would make the trek. For jihadist, Syria -- where they believe Armageddon will take place -- is both strategically and religiously significant.  

Abu Sayyaf's focus on Syria may have been fueled by ideological conviction, but it was also grounded in a pragmatic recognition of his constraints at home. He was quick to acknowledge that his movement was not ready to confront the political order at home. "I said many times before that the regime that rules Jordan is an apostate regime, a regime that we must remove," he said. "But doing this is tied with our ability and capacity. When we become capable, this regime will not be left alone."  

It's a threat that officials in Amman are taking seriously. Jordanian security officials we met with raised concerns that Islamist militants are gaining valuable experience in Syria and that this could poses a threat to stability in Jordan -- and they complained that several countries in the Gulf were playing a dangerous game in backing militant groups in Jordan.

But he also underscored to his American guests that he saw this fight in the context of a broader, global fight for Islam. "We hope to conquer the whole earth," he said. "But for now, to you your religion and for me, mine. In Islam, we offer non-Muslims the option of conversion, paying a tax, of fighting. Fighting is the last option."

ABO SHUJA/AFP/Getty Images