New York — More than 400,000 women are raped in Congo every year
Leading feminist figures from around the world lent their support on Thursday to scores of Congolese women gathered in a bid to end the Central African country's rape epidemic.
Giving women a role in peace efforts in the conflict-torn nation could help address its astronomical rate of sexual violence, they said, which has earned it the tag of "rape capital of the world."
More than 400,000 women are raped in Congo every year, and much of the sexual violence is considered to be a by-product of years of fighting.
The women, hailing from each of Congo's provinces and meeting in Kinshasa, linked up via social media with Liberian Nobel laureate Leymah Gbowee and Ms. magazine co-founder Gloria Steinem in New York.
Involving Congolese women in ending the nation's ongoing political turmoil would help establish the law and order needed to prevent rape, they said.
Gbowee, who was co-awarded the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize for her work for peace and women's rights, warned against incendiary politics getting in the way.
"Peace is more important than any political ideology," she said.
"You have to tell yourselves 'For us to start this journey, for us to work together collectively to sustain the peace in Congo, we have to put aside those things that will easily take us from on track'."
A string of ethnically motivated attacks including rapes has been reported in recent months as Congo's government has been fighting insurgents in the central Kasai region.
Violence in Congo follows President Joseph Kabila's decision to stay in power beyond the end of his two-term mandate. It has escalated amid fears that a presidential election may not take place.
Speaking from her native South Africa, Navi Pillay, the former U.N. rights chief who rose to prominence as an anti-apartheid lawyer, said she was reminded of her own country's struggles in establishing democracy for all.
"I feel for you right now because we also twenty years ago started like you did, we got into a room, all the women," she said.
"Even though we disagreed with one another, we agreed on the principle points we want which is equality and fundamental rights and democracy."
Gbowee, Steinem and Pillay were joined on the Donor Direct Action Facebook Live broadcast by television series creator Lena Dunham, actress Meryl Streep and Sweden's Foreign Minister Margot Wallström, who called Congo the rape capital in comments she made as a United Nations Special Representative on sexual violence in conflict.
(Reporting by Sebastien Malo @sebastienmalo, Editing by Ellen Wulfhorst. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit http://news.trust.org)