Saturday, 4 June 2011

Where are the women? Speech for DRC event at the Cube

This year, Bristol Feminist Network and Bristol Fawcett have joined up to ask the question, where are the women? We have discussed the absence of women in popular culture, and have celebrated the talent and creativity of women in this very room back in January. You may have joined us at the Watershed in March where we discussed where women are absent and where they are present and what that means for the fight for equality in the UK and beyond.

Today we look at another area where women are absent from our cultural landscape. And not just women, but all sorts of people who’s country, situation, war or famine do not make the news headlines. In a media landscape dominated by football shagging stories and Britain’s Got Talent conspiracy theories, the international crisis of violence against women and girls, and the work women and girls are doing to rebuild their lives and communities out of the ashes of violence are often sidelined to ‘special reports’, when they are reported at all.

Where are the women, I ask, in the news?

Last year on his excellent Newswipe show, Charlie Brooker talked about how the media reacted to the Ebola virus when it broke out in the Congo. The disaster took over our TV news screens as we learnt and heard about how the virus had taken hold, with the ever present fear of a global pandemic hinted at throughout the reports. Then, just as quickly as they arrived, the journalists were gone. The Civil War that has raged across the country for years has killed far more than the Ebola virus did, in fact the civil war in the Congo has killed more people than any other conflict since world war two. Yet, beyond the odd special report, we rarely hear about this human rights crisis.

News editors have a difficult job. Across the world terrible things happen every day. How do they choose which ones to focus on? It is not a decision I have ever had to make, and I don’t envy them! Inevitably, news tends to focus on issues that its felt the news audience can connect with, that they feel is part of their lives or something they can put into a context of their own experiences. And, sometimes, news overlaps with celebrity gossip.

To most people, the civil war in the DRC is far away. It happens over there. It doesn’t connect with us, there’s nothing we can do or say to make it better.

But this is a lie. Everyone in the room is connected to the DRC, by what you have on your desk, in your pocket, in our handbag. By this. [hold up phone].

The DRC is one of the most mineral rich countries in the world. For centuries the West have plundered their natural resources at the expense of the people’s rights, safety and happiness. The most recent mineral making Western businesses a fortune is coltan, used in mobile phones, laptops and other electrical goods that we use every day.

I’m going to read an extract from Johann Hari’s recent article on the DRC and coltan to explain the chain of events that takes minerals from the Congo into our pockets:

‘The major UN investigation into the war explained how it happened. They said bluntly and factually that "armies of business" had invaded Congo to pillage its resources and sell them to the knowing West. The most valuable loot is coltan, which is used to make the metal in our mobile phones and games consoles and laptops. The "armies of business" fought and killed to control the mines and send it to us. The UN listed all the major Western corporations responsible, and said if they were stopped, it would largely end the war.

Last year, after a decade, the US finally passed legislation that was - in theory, at least - supposed to deal with this.. it outlined an entirely voluntary system to trace who was buying coltan and other conflict minerals from the mass murderers, and so driving the war. (There are plenty of other places we can get coltan from, although it's slightly more expensive). The State Department was asked to draw up some kind of punishment for transgressors, and given 140 days to do it.

Now the deadline has passed. What's the punishment? It turns out the State Department didn't have the time or inclination to draft anything.’

That’s the end of the quote. You can read the full article here:

So we have no excuse to think the violence in the Congo is far away. It’s in our living rooms, our offices, our pockets.

The Civil War in the DRC has killed over 5 million people and due to the mass rapes of women and children, the eastern Congo is considered to be the most dangerous place in the world to be a woman. Tonight, we are here to hear the stories of these women.

And when you leave here tonight, tell people about what you have heard and seen. Tell people about how we are connected to this bloody conflict. Tell people about how the women of the DRC are active agents in their country’s future, rebuilding lives, communities and their country for a better tomorrow. Lets not ask ‘where are the women’ again. Lets make sure that the stories of women all over the world are heard and not silenced.

Please come to the event!!

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