Eve Ensler Calls for Rape-Free Cellphones
On May 13, 2009, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee held a hearing called “Confronting Rape and Other Forms of Violence Against Women in Conflict Zones.” Its purpose: to end the use of rape as a weapon of war in the Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo–a place where 1,100 women a month are raped, in part as a consequence of the region’s coltan trade. Coltan, or columbite tantalite, is a mineral essential to the manufacture of a wide array of consumer electronics–cellphones, laptops. Among those who testified: Eve Ensler, playwright of “The Vagina Monologues” and the founder of V-Day, a global movement to end violence against women and girls–and a speaker at D7.
- Kara Swisher introduces Ensler, describing “The Vagina Monologues” author–with a bit of understatement–as a “strong lady.”
- Kara kicks things off with a stat noting that while many people say they are aware of corporate social responsibility, few people know what it means.
- Ensler describes the history of V-Day, noting that it began as an offshoot of “Vagina Monologues.” While working on that show, she found that many women approached her not to discuss their sex lives, but their experiences with sexual violence.
- Kara asks Ensler to explain the current situation in the Congo. “I think I’ve been to a lot of scary places, but nothing I’ve ever seen compares with the Congo. It is without a doubt the worst place on the planet to be a woman.”
- Ensler says that the coltan trade in the Congo has created a sort of “Blood Diamond” situation there, with militias using violence and rape as a means controlling the trade. She recounts some truly horrific examples of the type of violence against women.
- Kara asks about the link between coltan mining and rape. Ensler explains that militias gain control of the mines by fracturing communities with rape, using sexual violence to control slave labor as well.
- What can companies do to stop such behavior. A boycott, perhaps? Ensler says that’s not a solution. It would only inspire more violence. Awareness is a better option. Companies should make the coltran sourcing transparent. They should put watchdogs and surveyors at the mine sites to prevent rape. They should dedicate more resources to making rape-free products.
- Kara: How do you raise consumer awareness around something that people use every day in Wiis and cellphones, but don’t know about? Ensler says people care about the products they use and that companies might sell more products if they tout them as built from rape-free components. “This is an integrated process.”
- Kara asks about industry cooperation. Ensler says that’s just beginning. Pledges have been made, but there hasn’t been much done beyond that. “The rape and desecration of the Congo is the rape and desecration of all of us….I need companies to say, ‘this matters,’ and to step forward and commit to making rape-free products.”
- Ensler again stresses that boycotts are not a good solution. The area is far too poor, and boycotts would be far too damaging to it.
- What other sorts of technology might be brought to bear here? Ensler notes the difficulty of communicating in the bush and suggests a simple phone that would allow rape victims to apprise others in the area of what’s been done to them.
- Moving on to the Q&A. First questioner asks about ways for the common man/woman to help. Ensler stresses the importance of spreading the word about what’s being done–on blogs, social networks, etc. Again, she says, awareness is key. She notes the differences between the response to what’s going on in the Congo and what happened in Bosnia. The situation in Bosnia was addressed comparatively quickly. What’s been happening in the Congo has been going on for 12 years.
- Questioner notes that simply raising awareness ultimately doesn’t solve the problem. What’s to be done after that? Ensler pitches the same idea of awareness. Only buy a phone if you know it’s rape-free, she says. “I know I’d be willing to pay more for a phone if I knew it was made from materials that were not involved in women being raped.”
- Gary Shapiro, president and CEO of the Consumer Electronics Association, stands up to suggest that these issue are perhaps a bit too complex to be solved by the solution Ensler proposes. Ensler bristles a bit and says it’s not her duty to provide a solution. Its his and the companies he represents.
- Question from Susan Wojcicki at Google (GOOG). Is there an economic opportunity for the region by selling electronic companies rape-free components? Ensler says she believes there is, but someone has to make that happen.
- End of Q&A.
A note about our coverage: This liveblog is not an official transcript of the conversation that occurred onstage. Rather, it is a compilation of quotes, paraphrased statements and ad-lib observations written and posted to the Web as quickly as we were able. It was not intended as a transcript and should not be interpreted as one.