The fact that an audience member reportedly asked Hillary Clinton "what her husband thought" about a matter of policy in a Congolese town hall meeting today hints at some of the underlying issues Clinton was there to address:
"You want me to tell you what my husband thinks?" the Secretary of State apparently repeated. "My husband is not secretary of state, I am...If you want my opinion, I will tell you my opinion. I am not going to be channeling my husband."
Clinton's visit to the Democratic Republic of Congo, part of an 11-day tour of Africa, is intended, according to a spokesman quoted on NPR, to press the government for democratic reform, fight rampant corruption, and to address the virulent rape epidemic that's hit the eastern part of the country in the wake of years of conflict. According to the New York Times, Clinton took aim at illegal mining, saying she was "particularly concerned about the exploitation of natural resources." In the coming days, Clinton will meet with the country's president, visit a hospital in the capital city of Kinshasa founded by NBA player Dikembe Mutumbo, and speak with several rape victims. Her visit is significant, not least because the U.S., after its involvement in Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba's assassination, is regarded with suspicion. She addressed this in the meeting, telling one student, "I can't excuse this past and I won't try," telling the young people to ask, "will I be dragged down by the past or will I decide to do something to have a better future?"
While it's a great sentiment, it may be harder for the Congolese people to take at face value than we might wish: a devastating piece in today's Washington Post reaffirms that the heavily U.S.-backed U.N. peacekeeping efforts have exacerbated the rape problem. Says the piece, "An already staggering epidemic of rape has become markedly worse since the January deployment of tens of thousands of poorly trained, poorly paid Congolese soldiers, with people in front-line villages such as this one saying the soldiers are not so much hunting rebels as hunting women." The phenomenon, which we've addressed before - and which increasingly targets men as well as women - has forced women to self-impose a curfew to protect themselves from the 60,000 soldiers in the area. Although President Joseph Kabila has declared rhetorical war on the epidemic, the article makes it clear that the vast majority of these crimes will go unpunished by a system that looks the other way - no senior officials have been prosecuted - and that is deeply patriarchal at the best of times.
Clinton is, of course, widely regarded as a female role model - and that even she should be publicly marginalized is a worrisome indication that changing the culture's going to be a very long road. One hopes that her call to young people to "speak out to end the corruption, the violence, the conflict that for too long have eroded the opportunities across this country... Together, you can write a new chapter in Congolese history," will be heeded. According to a report on NPR, Clinton called the rape culture "truly one of mankind's greatest atrocities," something that "the entire society needs to be speaking out against this. It should be a mark of shame anywhere, in any country."
Clinton: I'm Secretary Of State, Not Bill [MSNBC]
Clinton Assails Rampant Sexual Violence In Congo [NPR]
Clinton Heads To A Congo Torn By Violence [NPR]
Clinton to Target Sexual Violence in Congo [Time]
Clinton Presses Congo On Illicit Minerals [NY Times]
Congo's Rape Epidemic Worsens During U.S.-Backed Military Operation [Washington Post]