Centuries on, Violence in the Congo Continues

The horrors of the Belgian Congo echo through the centre of Africa today. The same exploitation of resources takes place, the same atrocities are committed and there is the same desperate need for change. This gives rise to the aphoristic question: is history doomed to repeat itself? Rewinding history 132 years, The King of the Belgians – Leopold II ruled his empire in the Congo from 1880 to 1907 by terror. Leopold controlled commerce through concessionary companies who aggressively competed for natural resources, particularly wild rubber, and exploited the local population by placing unrealistically high quotas on rubber-gathering villages. Rubber collecting depended on forced labour, and sentries were merciless in obtaining a steady supply. During his reign ten million died, halving the Congolese population. Atrocities such as unlawful seizure of land and property, mutilation, mass starvation, rape, torture, executions, surprise raids, village burning and floggings occurred in order to maximise rubber extraction. Rubber was highly profitable due to the global rubber boom and automobile development; concession companies such as the notorious Anglo-Belgian India Rubber Company (ABIR) were determined to prosper from this and plundered the Congo.


Illustration of Sentries attacking a village of Bolima. Reprinted from The Graphic magazine (January 1906)

The situation in the Congo today is arguably as violent and exploitative as it was during the rubber boom. Rubber has been replaced by four highly profitable minerals used in mobile phones, iPods and laptops: tin, tantalum, tungsten and gold. The foreign oppressor has been replaced by local and neighbouring militias. The market for the Congo’s resources is enormous due to the global demand for electronic products. In 2011, three million kilograms of tantalum were used worldwide, 60% going directly into the electronics industry (Kovach and Way, 2012).


A woman fleeing the violence waged by soldiers and militias. From The Crisis in the Congo video (2011)

This has led to rebel groups in the Congo enslaving entire villages to extract these minerals for warlord profit, at an average of £13 million a month. Competing militias who force people to work in the mines or demand “taxes” from workers control approximately 98% of Eastern Congo’s mines. A large proportion of the workers are children who earn up to one dollar a day. The local civilian populations are terrorized into submission through murder, rape and the burning of villages. Since 1998, over 6 million Congolese have died. Sexual violence in the Congo is widely acknowledged to be at an unprecedented level, with a report revealing that 48 women are raped every hour. The majority of the Global North wants luxury goods and colludes with electronic manufactures by ignoring the humanitarian price paid for these, whether through lack of awareness, apathy, or plain disregard.

The violence experienced in the Congo over a hundred years ago and today was, and is, wholesale. These atrocities are exceptional in that they symbolise not only the murder of people but also a systematic endeavour that obliterates the very notion of their being human. They are what we call “crimes against humanity”, and evoke a human duty to end such terror. This moral imperative was successfully undertaken in the nineteenth century by the Congo Reform Association (CRA) led by Edmund Morel and Roger Casement, who exposed the injustices, relentlessly kept the cause in the public eye, and pressured the British government to intervene.

The CRA was the first humanitarian movement to use atrocity photography. Publications and lantern slide shows reached vast audiences and gathered support for reform in the Congo. They were successful in their aim to stimulate a moral reaction. As Susan Sontag wrote in 1979, “photographs cannot create a moral position, but they can reinforce one and can help build a nascent one”. This was especially the case in an era when photography was a new medium. Today’s extensive photographic archive of worldwide injustice has since generated a familiarity with atrocity that has made the abhorrent seem normal and inevitable. The saturation of shocking images has deadened the conscience, making it harder to arouse a response. At the time of Leopold’s Congo the public would have had no immunity to photography’s impact; offenses in distant regions were made visible for the first time. The wide circulation and effective use of photography captured the public conscience and drove a fierce international campaign.


Boaji lost her foot after being mutilated by soldiers of the Congo Free State Government. Reprinted from The Graphic magazine (January 1906)

In 1907 Morel denounced Leopold’s atrocities as “a crime unparalleled in the annals of the world”. He would be deeply dismayed to see the torment paralleled today, especially as the crisis is not receiving the exposure it deserves. Howard French from the New York Times and Associate Professor at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism stated: “Millions of Congolese people have lost their lives and it has warranted almost no sustained and enterprising reporting from the media of the world, it has obtained no great purchase on the popular imagination.” However, there is one increasingly loud voice: the Enough Project’s Raise Hope for Congo Campaign led by John Prendergast and Gayle Smith, which is demanding the media shine a light on this catastrophic crisis.


Maria breastfeeds one of her three children in Nizi, Ituri province. She lost her arm defending her children. Photo by Marcus Bleasdale (2010)

Campaigners are raising awareness about the conflict in the Congo, the role of conflict-minerals funding it, and the effects of sexual violence as a weapon of war. The Enough Project is trying to create a mass consumer demand for conflict-free products, enabling us as consumers to know whether our purchases are financing the armed groups controlling the mines. It is hoped that electronic companies will act with greater due diligence, have a transparent minerals supply chain, and launch an internationally supported certification system to ensure minerals are conflict-free. By pressuring electronics companies to remove conflict-minerals from their supply chains, we can help remove the financial fuel driving the armed groups and their atrocities on the ground.

If history is set to repeat itself, let us hope that the public will galvanize itself to support the Conflict-Free campaign in the same way it successfully rallied behind the CRA.

To take action please visit: Raise Hope For Congo.

Katie Bryant


Legally Trapped: UK Legislation Concerning Migrant Domestic Workers Regresses Whilst Middle Eastern Initiatives Look Progressive

Prior to April 2012 the UK was considered a (comparatively) progressive and well regarded country with respect to its national legislation surrounding Migrant Domestic Workers (MDWs). MDWs enter a country with an employer to work in a private household, typically responsible for tasks such as childcare, housework and cooking. The nature of their work, as an employee in a private household, means that MDWs are particularly vulnerable to exploitation and abuse if they are unlucky enough to work for manipulative and cruel individuals. Thus, if society is to protect these individuals from those who believe that they can exploit and abuse, strong and practical legal protections are crucial. In 2010 elements of the legal protections available to MDWs in the UK were praised by the international community as examples of good practice (albeit amongst recommendations that further protections be implemented, indicating that although progressive, UK legal protection of MDWs still was not complete). What is clear though is that, in 2010 in terms of its national legislation, the UK had got some things right.

In contrast, Middle Eastern States were highlighted as ‘bad’ examples; states that should look to the example of ‘good practice’ states, such as the UK. Much of this critique stemmed from the use of the ‘Kafala’ system which was the basis for much of the legislation concerning MDWs in many Middle Eastern countries. Legislation based upon the ‘Kafala’ system ties a MDW to a specific employer or sponsor in that country, meaning that the MDW does not have the right to change employer. To illustrate; MDWs in Lebanon who are vulnerable to physical and psychological abuse, and realities such as little (or no) pay, extreme working hours and poor living conditions, are yet unable to legally leave these abusive employers. Heavy criticism rained down on Lebanon in 2010 with Western states such as Canada, Norway, France and Poland calling on Lebanon to replace the current system with one that complied with international standards. It was noted that due to the tie between employer and employee a total dependency of the worker on the employer is created which in itself creates total vulnerability and opens the door wide to exploitation. Crucially, the right to change employer was highlighted as being instrumental in ensuring that migrant domestic workers were able to escape abusive situations. The fact that a MDW could change employer in the UK was highly regarded; the defining difference between the ‘Kafala’ system and that in the UK.

However, in 2011 the UK began to tarnish its reputation in the international community. It joined countries such as Sudan and El Salvador in refusing to commit itself to international legislation which would provide protection of labour rights (e.g. National Minimum Wage and maximum working hours) for MDWs. 172 states voted in favour of this piece of international legislation; the UK was one of only 11 countries which chose not to.

This was the top of a slippery slope which has resulted in drastic legislative changes affecting MDWs living and working in the UK; with a government move towards, rather than away from, a system similar to the ‘Kafala’ system so highly criticised by Western States.

The fundamental change in law was simple. From April 2012 those coming to the UK on an Overseas Domestic Worker Visa would no longer be entitled to change their employer (other changes were also introduced; for more information click here). With one swift move, the UK government wiped out one of the most important protections available to MDWs which ensured that they would be able to leave an employer who may exploit and abuse. The ‘Kafala’ system, criticised by many members of the international community, is now, in one crucial and defining way, indistinguishable from the system that we have had in the UK since April 2012.

Kalayaan, a charity dedicated to offering practical assistance, and advocating for the rights of MDWs working in the UK, has seen first-hand the results of this change in law. With the one year anniversary of the legal changes Kalayaan produced a brief which highlights their findings. Unsurprisingly, just as with the ‘Kafala’ system in Lebanon, those on the new ‘tied’ visa are statistically more likely to be exploited and abused than those who have the right to change employer. It is estimated that in 2008 at least 95 MDWs died in Lebanon; horrifyingly 40 of these were suicides and 24 were caused by workers falling from high buildings, often whilst trying to escape employers. This level of desperation is not surprising when Kalayaan’s statistics are considered; of those MDWs in the UK on the new ‘tied’ visa 100% were paid less than £100 per week, with 62% being paid no salary at all, 85% did not have their own room, 96% were not allowed out unsupervised, and 100% did not have a single day off.

As the UK regresses, it seems that, paradoxically, countries in the Middle East are showing progressive movements away from the problems of the ‘Kafala’ system. Initiatives in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, although of mixed strength and success, are developing, and crucially, they are all making changes which see them moving away from the ‘tied’ visa system and towards systems where MDWs have the right to change their employers. The UK should be ashamed that whilst other States with poor human rights records are making progressive steps, it, a supposed leader in this area, is in fact regressing, whilst also falling behind in the international arena.

Lobbying, campaigning or volunteering for charities which work for the rights of this largely invisible and highly vulnerable group of people will help in the struggle to ensure that we do not allow the UK government to continue its regressive movements down a dangerous and slippery slope. Public ignorance and apathy of such issues remains a crucial factor in the success of this regressive legislation which detrimentally affects the lives of hard-working, poorly paid and vulnerable people. If you are not able to spare the time to lobby, campaign or volunteer then I urge you simply to better inform yourself and others about the issues faced today by members of our workforce. An informed public is an important step towards a more progressive society.


For a fully referenced copy of this article please click here

Rosie Boggis

Abortion Laws in Mexico: A Women’s Rights Issue

The lack of access to free, high quality and equitable sexual and reproductive health services is real problem in Mexico and constitutes a violation of the rights of women.


Graffiti in San Cristóbal de las Casas, Mexico

In 2007 the federal district of Mexico City passed a law allowing abortion for women in the first trimester no matter what the circumstance. Abortion is permitted in all 32 states if a woman becomes pregnant from rape and in 29 if the woman’s life is at risk (Guttenmacher Institute, 2008). Abortion services are provided free in Mexico City for residents and at a fee for non-residents. This is discriminatory against women who are faced with practical, social or economic obstacles preventing them from reaching Mexico City. A human rights based approach (HRBA) to the provision of sexual and reproductive health services in Mexico would ensure more effective implementation and help women across the country to enjoy the rights they are entitled to.

The HRBA approach to development identifies “rights-holders”, people whose rights are not being met, and “duty-bearers”, who are responsible for ensuring these rights. While this may all sound complicated, the clear link between human rights and developments has led many organisations, such as the UN, Actionaid and the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID) to use this approach. The HRBA approach aims to empower “rights-holders” by improving the capacity of “duty-bearers” to fulfil their obligations.

This can be achieved through legal policy reform and healthcare reform in Mexico, as per the standards set out in following two human rights treaties, the International Convention on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) and the Convention on the Elimination of All forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), both of which Mexico ratified in 1981. The healthcare standards set out by the World Health Organisation (WHO) are another useful guide.

International Women’s Day, a day to celebrate woman hood and “press for demands”, took place on the 8th of March. It coincided with the 57th session of the UN Commission on the Status of Women which took place from the 4-15th of March. Both events brought the issue of gender equality in developing countries, and the potential for change, to the attention of international community.

Furthermore Mexico has made a commitment to the Millennium Development Goals. Goal 3, to promote gender equality and empower women, and goal 5, to improve maternal health both have targets to be met by 2015. Both goals are inhibited by abortion laws that remain restrictive in most of the country, affecting women from disadvantaged social and economic backgrounds he most.

Improvements in the public sector also hint at the possibility for change. The recent overhaul of the healthcare system in Mexico has culminated in near universal health coverage but comprehensive sexual and reproductive health for women is still not being provided.

The discriminatory abortion laws in Mexico must be addressed. The right to health, life, self-determination and choice are just a few of the many human rights that women in Mexico are prevented from enjoying.


“Careful! Machismo Kills” – Picture taken in Mexico City

Let’s consider the figures. Studies carried out by the Guttmacher Institute in 2012 found that 95%of the 4.4 million abortions in Latin America were unsafe and that 12% of all maternal deaths were a result of unsafe abortions.

Unsafe abortions are also expensive for the State. Women who undergo an unsafe abortion are highly likely to need medical care later on. Figures from the Guttmacher Institute show a 40% increase in the need for women to be hospitalised with complications following an unsafe abortion between the 1990s and 2006. Hospitalisations are more prevalent for poorer women in rural areas who can neither afford to travel to Mexico City nor pay for the “safest” of the unlicensed abortion clinics. Complications and death from unsafe abortions are preventable!

Legal policy reform and health care reform are both needed stop the violation of these women’s rights. The national decriminalisation of abortion up to 12 weeks, which has already proved successful in Mexico City is required first and foremost.

To decrease maternal mortality, morbidity rates and the level of unwanted pregnancies, women should be provided with comprehensive family planning and abortion counselling and services, which include access to modern contraception.

Education for men and women, particularly young women, and the training of medical professionals is also vital. Tackling the problem of gender inequality in this way is a key part of HRBA.

Women’s Global Network for Reproductive Rights (WGNRR) is leading an international campaign calling for global access to safe and legal abortion. Campaigns for the fulfilment of sexual and reproductive health rights will culminate on May 28th, International Day of Action for Women’s Health. Find out more about how you can get involved with the campaign: http://www.wgnrr.org/current-campaigns.

Georgia Booth


Guttmacher Institute (2008) ‘Facts on Induced Abortion in Mexico’ [online] Available at http://www.guttmacher.org/pubs/2008/10/01/FIB_IA_Mexico.pdf [Accessed 23/02/2013]

Guttmacher Institute (2012) ‘Facts on Abortion in Latin America and the Caribbean’ [online] Available at http://www.guttmacher.org/pubs/IB_AWW-Latin-America.pdf [Accessed 25/02/2013]

International Women’s Day (2013) [online] Available at http://www.internationalwomensday.com/about.asp#.US9W6jA7164 [Accessed 28/02/2013]

Kane, G. (2008) Abortion Law Reform in Latin America: Lessons for Advocacy Gender & Development Vol. 16, No. 2

Women’s Link Worldwide (2012) ‘Human Rights: The Foundation for a Comprehensive Sexual and Reproductive Health Counselling Service’ [online] Available at http://www.womenslinkworldwide.org/wlw/new.php?modo=detalle_proyectos&dc=64 [Accessed 26/02/2013]

World Health Organisation (2012) ‘Safe Abortion: Technical and Policy Guidance for Health Systems’ [online] Available at http://www.who.int/reproductivehealth/publications/unsafe_abortion/9789241548434/en/ [Accessed 05/03/2013]