The Atrocities Committed Against Women and Girls in the Congo Defy Imagination
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 11th 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.
The tour will also raise needed funds for the Panzi Hospital and to build and open the City of Joy, a center where survivors will be provided with support to heal and training to develop their leadership and life skills. Says Ensler, “We are supporting women in the DRC who are creating a minor, soon to be a major, revolution. My experience is that in places where women have suffered enormous violence or witnessed it, there is always a group of women who rather than getting AK-47s or machetes or escalating the violence or doing themselves in, actually grieve it and feel it and pass through it and as a result, they become the strongest women. They become the people who shift the culture.”
Ensler has borne witness to many horrifying forms of violence against women in over ten years of working with V-Day around the globe, yet nothing compares to what is now taking place in the Congo. “On the one hand these are the worst atrocities I’ve seen anywhere in the world–the sexual violence, the torture, the number of women being violated, the complete impunity, an indifferent international community, an ineffective UN, a failed Congolese government.” She then adds, “On the other hand, you have some of the fiercest, most devoted, clever, powerful women I have met anywhere in the world. And wonderful men who are really ready to galvanize and create change. With the support of the world community, particularly women, we will create a movement which will generate the political will and the necessary resources for change.”
Ensler says that while there has been growing media coverage of the war in the Congo, she hopes the tour will put additional focus on the fact that women are being used as weapons of war. “We still live in a world where femicide is taken for granted, where the raping of women, the destruction of women, is a given. Not extraordinary. And part of what we want this tour to be about is to say that this is not ordinary and is unacceptable.” In a recent interview with the National Post, Mukwege observed, "the traditional battlefield has changed. It is no longer war on the ground, but it is war on women's bodies. It is … the psycho-social destruction of a whole community in which the women are humiliated." Ensler sees wide implications to accepting these tactics. “When we allow this many women to be raped, when we allow this many women to be destroyed, we are basically giving license to that happening, not just in the Congo, but in Africa and throughout the world. If we can stop the violence towards women in the Congo,” it could be “a template that we apply to other conflict zones.”
I spoke to Ensler on Martin Luther King Day. She was in Washington for a rally the day before in support of peace in the DRC, as well as to speak at the first ever Inaugural Peace Ball on Inauguration Day, and I asked her what message she would most want to deliver to President Barack Obama. “The thing I would say is that ending violence against women is as essential as ending global warming. You cannot think of over half the world’s population, that one out of three of them are being beaten and raped, and not think that the greatest resource on the planet is being degraded. And my dream is that in ten years this issue will be so front and center that it will be undeniable, and that it will change.” When I asked her if she feels hopeful that Obama’s election marks a new paradigm shift, she became reflective. “I feel hopeful that the energy that Barack Obama brings to the White House can actually begin to formulate a real left in this country, a real social, progressive movement. A door has been opened, but it is up to us to get our whole body through that door.” She added, “I live constantly in the center of two opposite thoughts: the world is ending, the world is about to be born. I am fighting for the latter.”