An African Distraction

Our View: Focus On Clinton's Comments Obscures The Perils For Women In The Congo

August 14, 2009

There are plenty of reasons to be upset about what's going on in the Congo. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's angry response to a student who asked her what her husband thought about a matter of local importance is not one of them.

The United Nations reports that there have been 200,000 acts of sexual violence in the Congo since 1998, 65 percent against children. Since January, more than half of the thousands of rapes reported were perpetrated by the Congolese army, according to Human Rights Watch. That is to say nothing of the more than 2 million citizens who have been displaced and the 5.4 million who have died in connection with the war waged against rebels backed by Rwanda and Uganda.

But if you've watched the news, those horrific statistics and stories didn't register. That's because Secretary Clinton's umbrage over a question about a Chinese loan offer became the story, instead of the corruption of officials and the sexual warfare being waged throughout the country.

At a news conference, a student in the audience asked Ms. Clinton what her husband thinks about a disputed Chinese contract, and she reacted harshly. It's unclear what the student was thinking - did he misspeak, meaning to ask for President Obama's opinion, instead of Bill Clinton's? Did the translator ask the wrong question? Did one or the other of them think it appropriate to question our top diplomat about her husband's opinion, rather than her own? But the point is that the discussion has switched from life-and-death issues that everyone should be united against, to whether Ms. Clinton is jealous of the president or her husband, the former president.

She was not a petulant child craving recognition. She had a point to make, and it was this: I am the representative of the most powerful country in the world, and you will respect both my office and me as a human being. While you're at it, why don't you show that same respect to the women of the Congo?

In a country where being female might be a death sentence and rape is used as a weapon, this is not a point to be made lightly. Perhaps it wasn't diplomatic, but it was entirely appropriate for Ms. Clinton to defend her position in a place where so many wives and daughters have no defense or recourse.

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