With high spirits, song, dance, and drums, women in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo celebrated last weekend and wore black t-shirts that read, “stop the rape of our most precious resource.”
Even more remarkable, the apathetic Congolese government sent a high-level delegation of officers and peacemakers as security, a spectacle that lined the streets with curious children.
The cause? Eve Ensler.
Ms. Ensler, feminist, playwright, and founder of V-Day, an organization that combats violence against women, has a bold and unique answer to the problems plaguing Congo’s women.
“You build an army of women. And when you have enough women in power, they take over the government and they make different decisions. You’ll see. They’ll say ‘Uh-uh, we’re not taking this any longer,’ and they’ll put an end to this rape problem fast.”
The Democratic Republic of Congo is an aesthetically gorgeous country rife with violence and political corruption. Rebel groups have fought for years over the country’s rich natural resources and the Congolese women have borne the brunt of the conflict. The rape of thousands of women has been occuring for decades and the government has taken little action to stop it.
The international community of late is paying more attention, reporting when more horrific stories of mass rape hit the news lines. But diplomats, academics, aid workers, and government officials alike do not have the answer to heal Congo’s ills.
City of Joy
Take heart, women of Congo. Someone else does.
This past weekend, Ms. Ensler took the first step to building her army of women and opened a compound in Bukavu in eastern Congo, called the City of Joy. At the official opening on Friday, hundreds of women played drums and sang. Some even danced with the shovels and trowels they used to help build the City of Joy.
On the Inside
Brick homes, big classrooms, court yards, and verandas greet visitors as they enter. The center cost about $1 million to build and was constructed partly by the women themselves. Unicef contributed a substantial sum and, in conjunction with V-Day donations, Ms. Ensler was able to open the first location. Google also donated a computer center.
About 180 women each year, most of them rape victims, will travel to City of Joy to participate in self-defense, computer, and human rights classes. Various trades and farming skills will also be taught. Perhaps the most important resource at City of Joy: therapy and dance sessions to heal the women from their trauma.
Ms. Ensler’s vision was born in the calls of women who expressed their wish to have a safe location where they could learn useful skills. Some of the women will then return to their villages and become an advocate for change and female empowerment.
They don’t have to return, of course, and some may not wish to.
“I don’t want to go back to my village and get raped again,” said Jane Mukoninwa, who had been gang-raped twice and will be in this first group of leadership recruits. “I want to learn to read and write so I can stay in Bukavu.”
“I’m angry. And if I can get some skills, I can be an advocate,” she added.
Bold and Effective
Ms. Ensler’s mission may be considered bold to some but to others it is a clear answer. In fact, this very strategy was effective in Bosnia and other war zones where Ms. Ensler encouraged rape victims to speak out and become advocates.
“This could be a turning point,” said Stephen Lewis, a former Unicef official whose private foundation is helping City of Joy. “There’s been growing international concern about what’s happening in Congo, but up until now that hasn’t amounted to anything on the ground. Maybe this is the moment where women on the ground … turn this around.”
Anger + Skills = Advocate
I have long been of the belief that anger can lead to powerful and wind-shifting change. But women in places like Congo do not have the skills to perpetuate such a feat. What Ms. Ensler is accomplishing might just be the force that successfully battles the horrific violence plaguing Congo. To help build City of Joy, organize a benefit, or sign a petition, click here. And, by all means, spread the word.