The XX Factor

How Cell Phones Both Help and Hurt Women Abroad

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As a recent article on The Atlantic’s website reports, your cell phone is probably co-financing rape in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The same goes for pretty much any electronic device in your household, since nearly all of them–from your old TV to your fancy new iPhone–are part of a massive supply chain of what are known as “the 3 Ts”: tin, tungsten, and tantalum. Tantalum is essential in the production of electronic goods such as mobile phones. It is also essential in financing armed rebel groups in the Democratic Republic of Congo, which supplies approximately 15 percent of tantalum used globally.

More than eight years after the official end of the civil war in the DRC between rebels and government army forces, the two sides continue to fight one another. Those who suffer the most are civilians, in particular women and children, who often become targets of war-related sexual violence. As The Atlantic article notes, the United National Population Fund reported almost 16,000 cases of sexual violence in the DRC in 2008 and has continued to report many thousands more ever since.

American consumers’ complicity in this situation is not a new dilemma, the article continues. In 2010, President Obama signed the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, which requires U.S.-listed companies to disclose whether the minerals they use in their products were extracted in the DRC. Activists from the Enough Project are lobbying for an even stricter, multi-lateral, and independent certification system against the import of so-called “conflict minerals.” The regulations have already shown effect: Congo tin sales are down by 90 percent and prices on technology-related minerals are on the rise.

However, those who push for further regulation should proceed with caution, lest they end up undoing one good to preserve another. While we are preventing women from being harmed in the DRC by drying up the rebels’ minerals exports, we might be making it more difficult for women in the DRC and all over the developing world to acquire the kind of communication technologies that have been extraordinary in fostering economic and political women empowerment in the past. Cell phones have helped women to learn how to read and enabled them to claim more financial independence and decision-making power in household expenditures. If technology production becomes more expensive due to restricted imports from the DRC and neighboring countries, the products themselves will probably become more expensive as well. These economic restrictions may very well simultaneously save and endanger women’s freedom.

“Give me a one-handed economist!” a frustrated President Truman once demanded. “All my economists say, ‘on one hand…on the other.’”

But the bitter truth is, there are always two sides.