Last week I had the great privilege of being invited to hear Eve Ensler speak about the work V-Day is doing to tackle the sexual violence taking place in the Democratic Republic of The Congo(DRC). We gathered at the Royal Albert Hall, since it was exactly 100 years ago that key luminaries of the time had held the Great Congo Demonstration there. That 1909 meeting had resulted in the Free Congo Movement, which campaigned vigorously against the exploitation, slavery and murder of the Congolese people.
One hundred years on, violence and exploitation of a different but equivalent devastation grips the people of DRC. Although the war (which began in 1998, and is also known as Africa’s World War) was declared formally over in July 2003, women and girls remain targets for unimaginable violence. Rape is used as a weapon of war to torture and humiliate, leaving survivors with physical wounds, unwanted pregnancies, sexually transmitted infections and the fear of being ostracised by their communities. Between 300,000 and 400,000 women have been raped in the last 12 years (source: V-Day educational film) and it is estimated that 40 women are raped every day in South Kivu, eastern DRC (V-Day and Unicef educational leaflet)
A transcript, and more information about the video, can be found here.
In attendance at the Royal Albert Hall was Lynne Franks (Chair of V-Day UK), MP Eric Joyce, representatives from the Anglican Church and the wonderful Sandi Toksvig, who acted as a compere of sorts, introducing all the speakers. A young woman called Judith, who described herself as a ‘typical North London girl’, took to the stage to tell her story of how she left DRC with her parents at the age of 3. Judith was being filmed for an upcoming BBC programme and, like so many young Britons, had been ignorant of the situation in the Congo. Her recent journey of discovery opened her eyes; “I’d abandoned my mother-land.” Speaking of how DRC is suffering due to the western worlds ever-increasing demand for its minerals, Judith said “I felt complicit…as the minerals in this war are used in the mobile phones, computers and gadgets I use.”
Congolese anti-rape activist Christine Schuler-DeSchryver spoke with us of her experiences. She had just come from Bukavu to speak with us, where she had visited an 82 year old woman recovering from rape in hospital. Speaking out about the atrocities is a very brave action in the Congo, and elsewhere; “Sometimes I am even afraid of my own shadow” she said. After so many years of travelling and talking about the situation, she told us;”I don’t believe in politicians anymore. The only solution is a women’s revolution and the revolution starts here”
Schuler-DeSchryver is the director of the V-Day created City of Joy, “Our revolution centre”, which will be opening around May 2010. The V-Day action pack gives more information on the centre;
The City of Joy will be located in Bukavu, down the road from Panzi hospital, where it will support and train women to become community activists. They will have access to services including education and income generating activities, as well as a ditinct focus on leadership training. They will also receive programming in: group therapy, storytelling, dance, theatre, self defence, comprehensive sexuality education (covering HIV/AIDS, family planning), ecology and horticulture and economic empowrment. The City of Joy will provide women a place to heal emotionally as they rebuild their lives, turn their pain to power, and return back into their communities to lead.
“I will never forget something Jane Fonda said to me in New Orleans;” Schuler-DeSchryver said “‘Can you imagine if you woke up one day and saw on the news that a grandmother in New York had been raped? The whole world would stand up and fight’ But just because they are black and poor, nobody cares”
Introduced as ‘a power-house’ by Sandi Toksvig, Eve Ensler took to the stage. She began; “I am always on the tip of my emotions when I talk about the Congo.” Having been a campaigner for women’s rights for many years, Ensler felt like she had seen all the atrocities it was possible to see, and knew all it was possible to know. However, when she heard the stories of the women of the Congo; “I was forever shattered,” she said “But I don’t want to ever be the same.”
“These are the stories of people just like you and me” Ensler stressed. She then went on to tell us of an eight year old girl name Alisa who she and Schuler-DeSchryver had befriended in DRC. Alisa had endured two weeks of rape at the hands of militia, who had been keeping her captive. When Ensler and Schuler-DeSchryver met her, Alisa had fistula; holes inside herself from wounds caused by the guns and bayonets used on her. Because of there wounds Alisa no longer had control of her urine.
When they met, Ensler had tried to hug Alisa, but she shied away. It was then that Ensler realised Alisa had not been hugged since her ordeal because people were afraid of being urinated on. Determined to show her some affection, Ensler sat her down on her lap and hugged her…and was promptly ‘pee-d’ on. “It was an act of grace, it was a baptism” Ensler said of that moment.
“I don’t think it’s accidental that we’ve been relegated to the basement,” Ensler said sadly of our meeting place that morning, “It’s an indication of the problem that we haven’t filled the hall with thousands. We’re told to sit down here and be peaceful whilst one of the greatest atrocities of the world goes on as we speak”
“The way that the Congo will change is through a womans revolution,” Ensler went on. She spoke of the strong, resilient women of the Congo and said she was sure that “with a little support they can take back agency.”
As we left the space having heard from all the speakers Ensler urged us; “It’s up to all of us to stop being so polite. We need outrage, otherwise we will not penetrate this apathy.”
More things to go on and do;
Donate online to V-day; “We welcome any support or donations you are able to give us towards our campaign to prevent rape as a weapon of war in the DRC. Your donation will go towards the City of Joy: a safe house to help women and girls heal from rape, rebuild their lives and re-integrate into their communities.”
Educate yourself using these resources over at Vday.org
Add yourself to The V-Wall For Congo
Hold a Congo ‘teach-in’ or other V-day event
Ask your religious leaders, faith communities or congregation to participate in the Congo Sabbath Initiative
(Photograph sourced from Congo Now’s coverage of the event)
By: Sarah Barnes, 26.11.2009 | Comments (1)
Tagged: Activism, Charity, Christine Schuler-DeSchryver, City of Joy, Congo Now, Democratic Republic of Congo, DRC, Eve Ensler, Great Congo Demonstration, London, Lynne Franks, Rape, Royal Albert Hall, Sandi Toksvig, V-Day, Vagina Monologues, Violence