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Speaker outlines Congolese women’s struggle for peace

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NORTH NEWTON, KAN. – Ask a group of college students to “Stand if you own a cell phone” and you’ll get an automatic standing ovation. A convocation speaker at Bethel College did that recently, but not for an ego boost.

Sara Reschly, Chicago, wanted instead to show the broad impact of armed conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Africa. After asking about cell phones, Reschly added personal organizers, MP3 players and gaming systems to the list, leaving virtually no one seated.

A key ingredient in all these products is columbite-tantalite, or coltan, Reschly explained in her March 9 presentation. An estimated eighty percent of the world’s coltan comes from the DRC, with sales helping to perpetuate the conflict as guerilla groups fight for control of the roads to coltan mines.

As part of an all-female delegation of Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT), Reschly traveled to the DRC in 2006 to “learn how Congolese women have been affected by war and to amplify their voices,” she told her Bethel audience. “Civilians, especially women and children, bear much of the conflict.”

Since 1998, as many as 5.5 million people have died in the Congo, she said, with many of the deaths resulting from malnutrition and disease related to the conflict.

Women want their stories told in order to create change and stop the flow of weapons to their country, she said.

CPT members filmed and translated the stories of Congolese women. Reschly showed a brief portion of the film during convocation. Women without limbs explained how members of militant groups cut off their hands and feet, gang-raped them, burned their property and killed their husbands and children.

“These stories are not isolated cases,” said Reschly. “Rape is being used as a weapon in the war [in Congo] … as a weapon of control.”

Reschly explained that the rapes are systematic and happening on a large scale – victims range from infants to women as old as 70 years.

Rape is often done in a very public way that leaves men feeling helpless and women feeling shame. It also has an economic impact – the fear of rape prevents women from working in the fields, selling food at market and collecting water.

In response to a student question, Reschly expanded that description, saying 99 percent of rape survivors are kicked out of the community and rejected by their husbands for shame and fear of HIV/AIDS.

Even so, organizations are working for peace. The Collective Association of Women's Groups for the Empowerment of Women, formed in 1992, “diligently documents human rights violations” and works to public such documents. They provide direct services, including a micro-credit lending project that provides job opportunities, for the often-mutilated women rape survivors.

Such efforts are high-risk, said Reschly. In one village, women suspected of aiding in the publication of stories of human rights violations were buried alive.

The main message of such stories is a call for peace, Reschly said. “If there was peace in the Congo, they would not need to rely on resources from other countries.

“The Congolese women told us, ‘As mothers, we are tired of war. We want peace,’” she said. “They said, ‘Please go tell other women about the situation in the Congo. Go and lobby for an end to this war.’”

For more information about CPT or ways to help stop the violence in the Congo, Reschly recommended visiting www.friendsofthecongo.org, www.nodirtygold.org, www.amnestyusa.org/diamonds/holiday.html, www.congoglobalaction.org and www.cpt.org.

In her convocation presentation, Reschly also explained CPT’s mission in all of its work: “to use nonviolent methods to intervene in lethal conflicts to reduce violence and support local peacemaking efforts” while enlisting “the whole church in conscientious objection to war and the development of nonviolent institutions.”

Over the years, “you realize that nonviolent peacemaking and ‘getting in the way’ does make a difference,” Reschly said of her CPT experiences.

As her father-in-law, Bethel College Registrar Rodney Frey, explained in his introduction of Reschly, she has a lot of that experience, having been part of CPT since 1997. Reschly was born in Cleveland, Ohio, and graduated from high school in Grinnell, Iowa. She has a B.A. in psychology from Kalamazoo (Mich.) College and an M.A. in international peace studies from the University of Notre Dame.

As part of CPT, Reschly has served in assignments or participated in actions in Hebron, West Bank, Chiapas, Mexico, and Colombia, in addition to leading the delegation to Congo. She is married to Mark Frey, who works in the CPT Chicago office as administrative coordinator, and they have a young son, Elias.

Bethel College is a four-year liberal arts college affiliated with Mennonite Church USA. Founded in 1887, it is the oldest Mennonite college in North America. Bethel is known for its academic excellence and was the only Kansas private college to be ranked in Forbes.com’s listing of “America’s Best Colleges” for 2008 and one of only two Kansas colleges listed in Colleges of Distinction 2008-09. For more information, see the Bethel Web site at www.bethelks.edu.

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