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A woman whose face was cut with a machete undergoes treatment in Minova hospital, 50 kilometres west of the provincial capital Goma, December 11, 2007.JAMES AKENA

Canada's G8 initiative on maternal and child health should include assistance to survivors of rape in Congo, where it is used as a weapon of war.

According to Margot Wallstrom, the United Nations special representative on sexual violence in conflict zones, has named the Democratic Republic of Congo the "rape capital" of the world. Gang rapes, forced incest and genital mutilation with sticks, knives and even gunfire: the stories are horrific. "Rape brutalizes society; it's effective, it's cheap and it's silent," says Ms. Wallstrom. Last year, there were 8,300 in eastern Congo alone.

Though the UN has declared rape a war crime, some soldiers in its own peacekeeping mission in Congo have killed civilians, gang-raped girls and cut off the heads of young men. The troops must be held accountable, and the local soldiers should be given training and more resources.

Canada has chosen not to lead the UN peacekeeping mission. But that doesn't mean it can't spearhead an effort by the international community to oppose the use of sexual assault as a weapon of war with the same determination it once pursued an end to land mines.

Rape as a weapon of war breaks up families and dehumanizes villages, diminishing the tremendous potential of women in Africa. Mothers and grandmothers are playing an increasingly important role on the continent, raising a generation of AIDS orphans, applying for microfinance loans, and demanding a seat at the political table. Last weekend in Swaziland, the African Grandmothers' Gathering demanded an end to violence against women, and urged action to enact laws that uphold their rights and the rights of children.

Women have shown they can help transform post-conflict societies. In Rwanda, for example, they helped bring peace after the 1994 genocide, leading the gacaca court system, a community-based model that dealt with detainees awaiting trial for war crimes. That country's new constitution requires that women hold at least one-third of parliamentary seats. Other countries, including Botswana, Cameroon, Somalia and South Africa, have affirmative-action measures to make sure women are represented in government.

Swanee Hunt, a scholar and activist, believes women focus less on dividing up post-conflict spoils, and more on social and economic concerns. Ms. Hunt, the founding director of the Women and Public Policy Program at the Kennedy School, helped create the Initiative for Inclusive Security, which trains female "peace builders" in conflict regions around the globe, including Sudan, Uganda and Liberia.

Women's potential must be harnessed in Congo. With its maternal and child health, Canada will have some leverage to work against the horrific rape of Congolese women, and to help them build a better society.

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