Editor’s note: Our interview with Wright was conducted before sexual harassment allegations against Kevin Spacey came out. We reached out to Wright for comment when the news about Spacey broke, but did not hear back.

Robin Wright has never been the type of woman to sit still.

Wright is best known for her role as Claire Underwood in Netflix’s “House of Cards.” But what’s driving her, what has always driven her, is larger — and it’s been there before “House of Cards” even existed.

Robin Wright plays Claire Underwood in “House of Cards.” (Photo courtesy of Netflix)
Robin Wright plays Claire Underwood in “House of Cards.” (Photo courtesy of Netflix)

As an activist and now entrepreneur, Wright began channeling her Hollywood fame as a champion for the women and girls of the Democratic Republic of Congo following an eye-opening trip with Enough Project, a nonprofit seeking to end genocide.

“That one trip really affected to me. It’s indelible. When that girl said, ‘I want you to be my voice,’ she really looked me in the eye and asked, ‘Do you promise?’ I decided that I will never stop. I made a promise to her.”

She’ll speak to anyone who’ll listen, from legislators in Washington, to thought leaders at bbcon, a yearly conference for the intersection of technology and social good, where we spoke to her backstage.

It’s our hunger for phones, laptops and other devices, she says, that has fueled the illicit and lucrative trade of minerals in Congo. Rebel groups — trying to control mining areas for their financial benefit — have created a normalized culture of rape and violence against Congolese women.

These minerals are Congo’s blood diamonds.

“Blood diamonds took 10 years to clean up. It’s exactly the same. We’re in the same situation. It could take another 20 years to clean it up. It may never get cleaned up,” says the actor.

Her passion project is a socially-conscious sleepwear company called Pour Les Femmes, where profits are donated to charities that teach women trade skills. She’s also narrated a documentary about Congo, now streaming on Netflix, called "When Elephants Fight.”

Robin Wright visits local children during a trip to Eastern Congo with the Enough Project. (Photo courtesy of Enough Project)
Robin Wright visits local children during a trip to Eastern Congo with the Enough Project. (Photo courtesy of Enough Project)

Rape as a weapon of war

In 2010, after a visit to the Democratic Republic of Congo, senior United Nations official Margot Wallström called Congo the “rape capital of the world.”

In 2011, a study estimated approximately 1.69 to 1.8 million women have been raped over their lifetime, with a woman being raped nearly every minute.

Since the mid-1990s, the uptick in sexual violence in Congo coincided with Hutu militiamen — the same group that carried out the Rwandan genocide — fleeing into neighboring countries like Congo. Their presence led to back-to-back conflicts in the region, starting in 1996. The aftermath was just as damaging: An estimated 5.4 million people died. Rebel groups have terrorized civilians and exploited the country’s mineral riches for their own gain.

Sexual violence became a tool of war, wrote human rights activist and Enough Project director John Prendergast in 2009. “Competing militias rape in order either to drive communities out of contested areas or else as a means of controlling or subjugating those living in the areas they control.”

It’s minerals they’re after. These minerals — which financed rebel groups and two wars — begin as ore, and are then processed into valuable metals like tin, tungsten, tantalum and gold. The United Nations estimates Congo has untapped mineral reserves estimated to be worth $24 trillion.

The conflict minerals

The illicit trade of conflict minerals fuels both human rights abuses and a booming tech industry. Some of the most lucrative minerals are often referred to as “3TG.” Even though cobalt mines aren’t thought to be financing armed groups, some say cobalt should be considered a conflict mineral, too, since it is believed to be produced by child labor.

What makes minerals conflict-free?

  1. They must be free of the presence of armed groups — even the Congolese army
  2. Free of harmful forms of child labor (i.e. children under 16 working at the mines, or children of any age digging inside deep mining shafts)
  3. Free of labor by pregnant women

Legislation

In 2010, President Barack Obama signed the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act.

Part of the federal law mandates corporations whose stock is publicly traded in the United States to disclose whether their products contain conflict minerals from Congo or neighboring countries.

Critics argue that a law meant to protect Congo harmed it further, with foreign companies seeking their minerals elsewhere and driving down prices. Poor, artisanal miners, they say, take the brunt of this consequence. Supporters like the Enough Project credit the law with having a positive impact in the DRC, claiming it’s helped to significantly reduce the presence of armed groups and the Congolese army at 67 percent of the tin, tantalum and tungsten mines surveyed.

The Trump administration is trying to dismantle Dodd-Frank, which would mean the suspension of this mandate.

How electronics and jewelry companies rank

A study released today by the Enough Project measures how consumer electronics and jewelry retail companies rank in their conscious use of conflict-free Congo minerals in their supply chains. Apple, Google’s Alphabet, HP and Intel lead the electronics category. Signet Jewelers Limited and Tiffany & Co. top the jewelry pack.

Criteria

Points were awarded based on four major categories:

  1. Did the company conduct due diligence in their reporting of their supply chain? (30 points)
  2. Did the company develop a conflict-free trade and verifiably source 3TG from Congo? (30 points)
  3. Did the company make financial contributions to projects that promote the livelihoods of artisanal mining communities in eastern Congo? (30 points)
  4. Has the company been an advocate of sourcing conflict-free minerals? (30 points)

*Companies could achieve an extra 15 points if they took additional steps to determine if their minerals came from other regions in Africa, and if they supported certain conflict-free programs through contributions. (This is why Apple has a score higher than 120.)

(Source: “Demand the Supply: Ranking Consumer Electronics and Jewelry Retail Companies on their Efforts to Develop Conflict-Free Minerals Supply Chains from Congo”)
(Source: “Demand the Supply: Ranking Consumer Electronics and Jewelry Retail Companies on their Efforts to Develop Conflict-Free Minerals Supply Chains from Congo”)

Gains and obstacles

The consumer electronics industry has made significant progress in tracing and auditing their supply chains.

  • “As of April 2017, 420 mines in Congo had been verified as conflict-free. At the time of Enough’s first rankings in 2010, no mines had received this designation,” it says.
  • Apple and Intel say they’ll continue practicing the standard, even if the law is rolled back. Now there’s an expectation that their products are conflict-free.

Still, major challenges remain. The jewelry retail sector lags behind. Gold, in particular, is still hard to trace across the board, since it’s the mineral most used to finance rebel groups. Its trade is also poorly regulated.

“So many people don’t know the connection between the minerals that are in this thing [points to her phone] and what it’s doing to the women over there,” says Wright.

“They’re so strong, these women. That’s what blew my mind. How incredibly faithful and strong. Yes, sad. Yes, broken. But had all the faith in the world.”

Illustrations by Sara Wong for The Lily • Art direction by Amy Cavenaile

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