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The Atrocities Committed Against Women and Girls in the Congo Defy Imagination

Six-month-old babies are being raped; men with AIDs are intentionally infecting women. Eve Ensler has a campaign to help end the terror.

Behind the headlines heralding potentially positive developments in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), women and girls continue to be at risk. Media outlets report the arrest of rebel leader General Laurent Nkunda and the possibility of peace openings, but the eastern region where women and girls have been savagely raped and mutilated remains traumatized.

With all the bad news facing the world right now, you might prefer not knowing the horrific details of these women’s stories. “Yes, it’s difficult to hear about,” says playwright/activist Eve Ensler, “but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t hear.” 

It is precisely because Ensler feels not enough people are aware of the atrocities taking place in the Congo that she, and her anti-violence against women organization V-Day, are going on the road this month, in a five-city U.S. tour featuring her in conversation with Dr. Denis Mukwege, a heroic gynecologist and the director of Panzi Hospital in eastern Congo who treats, performs surgeries and offers counseling to the women there. Together Mukwege and Ensler will expose the extreme cases of violence against women in the DRC -- to date an estimated 400,000 women and girls have been raped -- and relay the stories of survivors who are coming together and breaking the silence .

The disturbing stories that have come out of the Congo defy imagination: women and young girls being raped by militia men in front of their families; rape victims ranging from as young as six months to as old as 83 years; women and girls faced with unwanted pregnancies and raped intentionally by men known to have AIDS. There is also a devastating epidemic of women and girls whose vaginas and reproductive organs have been completely destroyed from being violated with guns, bottles and sticks, often resulting in a condition called fistula, a rupture that results in the uncontrollable leakage of urine and feces. The traumatized rape victims are then further stigmatized and ostracized by their families and communities. Says Mukwege, awarded the UN Human Rights Prize in December 2008 for his humanitarian work, “ attacking women, the bearer of life, with this level of terror, I believe it has nothing to do with sexual desire. I think it’s about destabilizing society, trying to destroy society and bring about its complete destruction.”

Ensler is hoping to help end the terror through what she sees as the necessary first step, creating awareness.  “People have to get educated about what is going on.” The idea for the conversational format of the tour came from Ensler’s experience two years ago when she interviewed the doctor at the request of OCHA, a UN agency. Famous for her award-winning “The Vagina Monologues,” which began as a play about women and their bodies and ultimately spawned her anti-violence movement V-Day, Ensler has always believed in the power of conversation to illuminate our understanding of important issues.  “Unless people hear the details and specificities of things, they don’t get moved to action. And when you hear Dr. Mukwege, and you see a man who has been on the frontlines for twelve years, sewing up women’s vaginas as fast as these militias are ripping them apart -- and still having that degree of dignity, and that degree of steadfastness in the face of all this -- then you have to join the cause and do something.”

The “Turning Pain to Power Tour” -- beginning February 11 th in New York City before moving to Los Angeles, San Francisco, Atlanta and Washington D.C. -- supports a joint V-Day and UNICEF campaign to expose the devastating impact of rape on Congolese women's health, their families and their communities. The organizations call for specific measures to end impunity for perpetrators and to economically and socially empower women and girls so they can lead in the prevention of sexual violence and in the rebuilding of a country devastated by conflict .