A Conversation on Congo with Kate, Model and Human Rights Advocate

Kate is pictured here visiting the Grassroots Reconciliation Group in Uganda.
Since last November, the over decade-long conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo has once again surged. The latest outbreaks are forcing displacement of hundreds of thousands of Congolese people, escalating already rampant sexual violence, and creating larger death tolls. Since 1998, the conflict in Congo has resulted in the death of 5.4 million people. Cumulatively, this is a higher death count than the total number of lives lost throughout all of World War II.

The United Nations recently expanded its peacekeeping mission in the DRC. Yet, it is the work of NGOs, individuals, and those passionate to make lasting change in Congo who also lead the way for urgent change. In this new series, Her Blueprint talks with people who have chosen to take on Congo as advocates. Their lives are entwined with the DRC, showing that no matter where or who we are, we share our world.

Kate Tickel is co-founder of Congo-Sourced, Conflict-Free, a model, mother of a young son, and a human rights advocate based in Los Angeles. Last year, she was nominated for the Trust Women Hero Award, announced at the Trust Woman Conference in London. Kate recently answered some questions about why she is so dedicated to advocating for Congolese women and for conflict-free minerals in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Her Blueprint: Can you share a bit of your journey to how Congo in particular has come to be your focus and your current activities surrounding advocacy? As mentioned, I believe you started your own organization and are working with the Nobel Women's Initiative?

Kate:  My journey into advocacy has been very personal, and so informed by my own experiences as a woman and a mother. I was always a little in love with Africa. I read Gorillas in the Mist, about Dian Fossey and the silverback gorillas in Rwanda, as a girl. I fell in love with the entirety of that story: with Dian, with gorillas (I was and still am an enormous animal lover), with the descriptions of Rwanda and the mists and mountains. I was from rural Tennessee and there was something in my bones that understood eastern Africa intuitively, that mix of beauty and poverty. Then I read Philip Gourevitch's book We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed Our Families. It was an impossible story to recover from; it set a seed for activism. I had joined Amnesty International by the time I was ten or so. While I was still a teenager, I moved to Los Angeles to model, and started to travel constantly. I always had one foot in activism; I was always the girl in the makeup chair talking about Zaire. But there was no particular focus except the next job; I had such a peripatetic, gypsy lifestyle. And then motherhood happened, impossibly, at a young age, (I'd been told that because of a medical condition motherhood could never happen). I didn't necessarily feel a connection to other mothers, but for the first time I felt a strong connection to womanhood and to other women, this shared experience of being female. I noticed myself becoming fiercely protective of other women.

And then about three years ago I saw the headline for an blog post, "Does Your Cell Phone Contribute to Rape?," and I clicked on it. It was a brief article detailing what was happening in the Democratic Republic of Congo, how five and a half million people had been killed in the conflict there, about how gender violence was being used as a weapon of war, and about how the minerals being looted by the armed gangs there were in just about every piece of electronics on the market. It was an epiphany; I don't know how often in life we know the moment when our life has just changed, but I knew it to be that moment. All the air went out of the room. Who would ever look at their laptop and say, "I wonder how many girls were raped in the manufacturing of this laptop?" My first reaction was that fierce protectiveness over those women and girls; I couldn't sleep that first night, thinking of them. Thinking, "These women are so much more than the worst thing that has happened to them."

It took a few months of immersing myself in every lecture, every conference, every white paper, every book on not just Congo but the nature of conflict, gender violence and genocide; my education is still constantly ongoing. In the meantime I was talking to everyone I knew about Congo, and about "conflict minerals" (also known as the 3TGs: tin, tungsten, tantalum and gold). Groups like the Enough Project and Human Rights Watch had been instrumental in passing Section 1502 of the Dodd-Frank Act, which requires companies to disclose if the minerals in their products are sourced from Congo. Companies were citing overwhelm at the prospect of having to audit their supply chain, there were several regulatory agencies whose criterion had to be met to certify the minerals as clean, and confusion about the auditing process. In the meantime, there were concerns about the possibility of a de facto embargo happening in the Kivu provenances of eastern Congo, which is the most conflicted area; companies might just wash their hands of the whole issue and stop buying from Congo altogether, which would hurt the mine workers already the most vulnerable. So I worked with a risk management company to develop an audit process that would integrate all the regulatory agency supply chain templates, while building in a provision that encourages companies to source from Congo, and that's how Congo-Sourced, Conflict-Free happened.

Along the way, I became aware of a group called Stop Rape in Conflict, which addresses gender violence and rape as a weapon of war. They were hosting a panel in New York with the Nobel Women's Initiative, and I was able to meet Jody Williams, and Dr. Denis Mukwenge, who runs the Panzi hospital in Congo. That was a huge moment. The two groups are working together on a United Nations initiative, The International Campaign to Stop Rape and Gender Violence in Conflict. If you've never met Jody Williams, you don't know how impossible she is to decline; when she says "You need to come work on this campaign," you go work on the campaign. It's incredibly inspiring to be working with so many strong women, the activists and Peace Laureates who came before you.

Her Blueprint: I know you recently visited DRC. Can you share one experience there that elucidates why you are so committed to advocating for a conflict-free Congo?

Kate: The Democratic Republic of Congo is one of the most beautiful places in the world. There is one piece of folklore that posits that Eden was there, and when you see the waterfalls and complete verdancy, the constant petrichor, the elephants and gorillas, you believe that Congo could be heaven on earth. How is this haven the rape capitol of the world? How can these beautiful jungles harbor such violent militias? When I was first in Goma my driver and I got on very well. He and his wife had just had their first child, a little girl, and he wanted me to meet his family, so I went to their home. My son is French-speaking, as are the Congolese, and when I walked into the house the first thing I heard was the humming of the same French lullabye, "Bonsoir Bon Nuit," that I had sung to my little one when he was a baby. I started singing it too. The world is so small. We sing the same lullabyes. We all live in the same house.