DRC: Fighting Congo's Ills With Education and an Army of Women

Sunday, February 6, 2011
New York Times
Central Africa
Congo (Kinshasa)
PeaceWomen Consolidated Themes: 
Sexual and Gender-Based Violence

For years, diplomats, aid workers, academics and government officials here have been vexed almost to the point of paralysis about how to attack this country's staggering problem of sexual violence, in which hundreds of thousands of women have been raped, many quite sadistically, by the various armed groups who haunt the hills of eastern Congo.

Sending in more troops has compounded the problem. United Nations peacekeepers have failed to stop it. Would reforming the Congolese military work? Building up the Congolese state? Pushing harder to regulate so-called conflict minerals to starve the rebels of an income?

For Ms. Ensler, the feminist playwright who wrote “The Vagina Monologues” and who has worked closely with Congolese women, the answer was simple.

“You build an army of women,” she said. “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.”

Over the weekend, Ms. Ensler took the first step toward building this army: the opening of a base here in Bukavu called City of Joy.

The gleaming new compound of brick homes, big classrooms, courtyards and verandas will be a campus where small groups of Congolese women, most of them rape victims, will be groomed to become leaders in their communities so they can eventually rise up and, Ms. Ensler hopes, change the sclerotic politics of this country. They will take courses in self-defense, computers and human rights; learn trades and farming; try to exorcise their traumas with therapy sessions and dance; and then return to their home villages to empower others.

The center, built partly by the hands of the women themselves, cost around $1 million. Unicef contributed a substantial amount, and the rest was raised from foundations and private donors by Ms. Ensler's advocacy group, V-Day. Google is donating a computer center.

It is a gutsy concept, to invest this heavily in a small group of mostly illiterate women — about 180 leadership recruits per year — in the hope that they will catalyze social change.

But Ms. Ensler has faced long odds before, encouraging rape victims in Afghanistan, Bosnia and other war zones to speak out and become leaders.

“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 show they can turn this around.”

Eastern Congo is one of the poorest and most dysfunctional places on earth, but it is also one of the most beautiful, a land of sculptured green mountains and deep, clear lakes and trees upon trees. It is teeming with riches: gold, diamonds, timber, copper, tin and more. And though the people here, especially the women, have been brutally abused for years — many have had assault rifles thrust inside them, others raped with chunks of wood and left incontinent and sterile for life — their spirits have hardly been crushed.

When City of Joy officially opened Friday, hundreds of women, most of them rape victims, thumped on drums and sang at the top of their lungs. They wore black T-shirts that read, “Stop the rape of our most precious resource.” It seemed that the army of women Ms. Ensler envisioned was mustering in front of her eyes. Some even danced with the shovels and cement-encrusted trowels that they used to build the City of Joy.

It was an upbeat moment in a country that has had few. The legacy of brutality and exploitation goes back to the 1880s, when King Leopold II of Belgium claimed Congo as a colony and essentially enslaved the population to obtain piles of ivory and rubber.

In the mid-1990s, the country sank to new depths when a civil war broke out and neighboring nations jumped in, arming this or that rebel group in order to get their hands on this or that gold or diamond mine. Millions died. Although the other African armies eventually withdrew, many of the rebel groups never disbanded, exploiting the fact that Congo is incredibly large and the state incredibly weak.

These armed groups have to a striking degree vented their rage against women. Sadistic rape — sometimes of men and boys as well — has become a distinctive feature of the violence here, sometimes to terrorize civilians, sometimes for no apparent strategic purpose.

Draw a line in almost any direction from Bukavu and you will hit a village where countless women have been brutalized.

Just last month, in the nearby town of Fizi, dozens of women were raped by Congolese Army soldiers. Congolese authorities took the unusual step of arresting some of the officers involved, including a colonel, but few really believe that will make a difference. The United Nations has an enormous peacekeeping operation in Congo, but even villages near the peacekeepers' bases have been hit.

The government, which has done little to address the problem, sent a high-level delegation to the opening of City of Joy. As the dignitaries arrived, hundreds of children lined the road, their toes squishing in the mud. Police officers patrolled with rusty rifles and ill-fitting helmets sitting crookedly on their heads. Pakistani peacekeepers stood in their jeeps, fingers on the trigger.

Ms. Ensler came up with the idea for the center about three years ago after hearing from Congolese women that they wanted a safe place where they could learn skills. While some of the center's alumnae will return to their villages, others will carry out the mission in other ways.

“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 the first class of leadership recruits. “I want to learn to read and write so I can stay in Bukavu.”

She added: “I'm angry. And if I can get some skills, I can be an advocate.”

On Saturday, the women gave Ms. Ensler a spirited send-off. They surprised her with a gift they bought, a wooden carving of a mother and child, and pressed around her, dancing.

They sang: “Why did you accept to carry us? We will never leave you to the end.”

Ms. Ensler wiped the tears from her eyes.