Women in Congo DRC
In the Congo of my childhood, much of the stability of life came from the women. At the same time, there was not much distinction between women and men. I remember telling my American mother how I couldn’t understand how men could disrespect women the way they do here in the U.S. or how some women could be as passive as I saw here. I couldn’t even understand how much attention people paid to whether someone was a man or woman when the discussion was just about tasks. In the Congo DRC when I grew up the top levels of government were mostly male, but this was largely because these positions were won by violence. Below this level there was much less gender discrimination. My mother was a prime example; she had a high level position running a government office. Most men were actively involved in the care of the family. “In the Aka tribe of the Democratic Republic of Congo, fathers are within reach of their infants almost 50 percent of the time, and women and men share the roles of child-rearing, hunting, cooking, and setting up camp” (Engaging Men and Boys 6). The important difference was not gender but age, because of the emphasis on respect for people older than you. My American mother had trouble believing that women could have a better position in society in such a poor country. But then I proved my point with language. In Lingala the words more likely distinguish age rather than gender. For example, there is no word for grandmother or grandfather. There is just a word for grandparent, and when you say “Koko” you can be referring to either one. Also in English there are words for brother and sister but no word that tells you whether they are older or younger. In Lingala there is a word for older sibling and a word for younger sibling; whether they are brother or sister is less important. In English you can’t tell the age; in Lingala you can’t tell the gender.
Current Congo War
In today’s Congo DRC all this has changed. Although Joseph Mobutu was a dictator who used his position to enrich himself at the expense of the people, there was a degree of stability during his regime that has disappeared completely. Congo DRC has become a failed state, prey to neighboring countries and criminal groups. For the predators there is a lot to gain. Although the country is one of the poorest in the world in per capita income, it is one of the richest in mineral wealth. For example, the South Kivu province, on the eastern border neighboring Rwanda and Burundi, is very rich in gold, iron, coltan, tungsten, and cassiterite (Mukwege and Nangini 4). It is a rural area where people did low technology farming and sometimes very small scale mining. In areas where international interests gained control of the land, some of the people worked as miners for very low pay and under very bad conditions. But once the government lost its ability to protect the eastern border the scramble for minerals became a free-for-all. The Rwandan genocide spilled over into Congo DRC when fleeing Tutsis were pursued into Congo by murdering bands of Hutus. Troops from Rwanda, Uganda, and Burundi invaded with the goal of getting control over mineral-rich lands. The only thing that stood between them and extreme wealth were the people who lived in the area. Invading armies and gangs of armed looters go through the area looking to clear out the people so that they can take over the valuable land. They have learned that the most efficient way to accomplish this is mass rape.
Rape as a Weapon of War
In Congo DRC, as in many other countries, rape has been found by invaders to be a very effective way to win war. Franco talks about its use as “a strategy designed to destroy or disperse ethnic groups… a form of torture that often terminates in death and aims to destroy a community” (Franco 23). In 2010 international media began to see the scope of the problem in Congo DRC after a mass rape in the town of Luvungi where over 200 women were raped in a few days without response from UN peacekeepers who were only a few miles away.
Congo—a posterchild failed state, the worst place on Earth to be a woman—now had another horror added to its long rap sheet. A 2011 study published in the American Journal of Public Health found that more than 1,100 women are raped in Congo every day—some 48 rapes per hour, as news outlets were quick to report. If anything, many analysts said, the true numbers could be much higher, as the pervasive stigma against rape victims in Congo likely suppressed the reporting of such crimes. (Heaton 33)
These acts were all the more devastating in a culture where women were the cornerstone of the country’s stability. Hawkesworth speaks about the terror that is created by rape. “Rape is an effective political device precisely because it produces a state of terror that renders women unable to act. As a practice of terror, rape produces powerlessness and dependence not only among those who are raped” (128). Mukwege states “Rape as a weapon of war is even more destructive than a classical weapon. In the Congo, rape with extreme violence has been used in a systematic and widespread manner, not only to destroy women in their most intimate integrity, but also to harm the family and society as a whole” (206). Mass rapes in the eastern Congo have been very effective in achieving the objective of clearing the land for looting. The side effect has been the destruction of women, families, and undermining of an entire culture.
City of Joy
In the Congo I remember, women held the society together. I believe this society will only be saved through the leadership of women. City of Joy is a community that is working to create leadership from among the women who have suffered the most. They serve 90 women at a time in a program that helps them heal from trauma and at the same time develops leadership skills with the potential for healing the entire society.
Dr. Denis Mukwege is a gynecological surgeon from Congo DRC. He originally wanted to create a maternity hospital in Bukavu, and with help from some Swedish funding organizations he build the Panzi Hospital. Soon it was clear that the region needed services for victims of sexual violence (Morris 713), and Dr. Mukwege became a specialist in repairing genital fistulas (“an abnormal connection between the vaginal or uterine cavity and the urethra, bladder, ureters, colon, or rectum” (Young-Lin et. al 161)) that were produced by rapes and other sexual atrocities. Known as “the man who mends women,” Dr. Mukwege invited the American playwright and activist Eve Ensler to come to Panzi Hospital and witness the extreme violence. Eve Ensler was already known for her work to stop violence directed against women. She had founded the movement V-Day, working to raise awareness and to raise money to support this goal. While in Congo she met with women survivors who were at the hospital, and she asked them what they needed. “It was these women who birthed the idea of the City of Joy, saying what they most wanted was a place to live in community so that they could heal— in essence, they wanted a place to turn their pain to power. And so the City of Joy was born” (City of Joy). She also met a Congolese activist Christine Schuler Deschryver, who led the development of the project and the construction of City of Joy, located near Panzi Hospital.
After her visit to Congo, Ensler’s V-Day movement “launched a Congo Campaign, STOP RAPING OUR GREATEST RESOURCE: POWER TO THE WOMEN AND THE GIRLS OF DRC” (City of Joy). Through this campaign V-Day
raised awareness about the level of gender violence in the DRC; advocated for change on local, provincial, national, and international levels; provided support to activists in the DRC and around the globe who are working to end the atrocities and change perceptions about gender and sexual violence; supported the creation of the City of Joy in Bukavu, South Kivu. (City of Joy)
The vision of transforming pain to power is supported by the philosophy of City of Joy. It distinguishes itself from programs that provide direct service, because “it does not view the women it serves as individuals that need to be saved; rather, the City of Joy aims to provide women with the opportunity to heal and redirect themselves in a community, on their own terms” (City of Joy). It supports this philosophy with the following statement of beliefs:
- Each woman is unique, valuable to her society, and has a right to be treated with dignity, respect, love, and compassion
- Women are not broken “victims”; rather they are survivors who have been through unjust gender traumas
- Each woman is capable of activating her own ability to recover, heal, and be an empowered and transformational leader
- Rebirth is possible. (City of Joy)
The V-Day movement added its statement about how City of Joy supports its own vision:
The City of Joy provides an unprecedented opportunity to demonstrate women’s leadership in the context of conflict and disaster zones. While this work requires an approach specific to the cultural and political climate of a given location—one that is determined by those it will be serving—V-Day believes it can learn a great deal from its experience in the DRC that can be applied to its work globally. (City of Joy)
Strategies and Goals
City of Joy’s primary strategy is its residential program that involves “healing women from their past trauma through therapy and life skills programming while providing them with the essential ingredients needed to move forward in life—love and community” (City of Joy). The residences are communal spaces with people who oversee the maintenance of respect among the residents. The grounds are beautiful and maintained by residents. There is a process of governance that includes a mayor elected by the residents who speaks for the residents to the staff.
There are classes and activities throughout the weekdays. They include communications, literacy, computer skills, sex education, media and communications, self-defense, farming
and livestock training, handcrafts, cooking, theater, dance. There are social workers and nurses on the staff who provide psychosocial services geared toward trauma survivors. There is massage for residents. There is also the “Vagina Warrior Program” for survivors “who have demonstrated leadership qualities. The focus is on healing trauma, building self-esteem and skills, and training women leaders.” Included in the activities is “leadership training on rights awareness, judiciary and community activism” (City of Joy).
Another strategy the City of Joy uses is participation of residents in V-World Farm, a project that trains residents in sustainable farming and produces food for the residents. “Our plan is to develop the farm into a functioning and commercially successful model over the next 10 years, to be run by women survivors who will live there to form a farming cooperative” (City of Joy).
Another example of the goal of producing women who are survivors developing into leaders is the “10 Guiding Principles” reflecting the culture of the City of Joy, “grounded in love and respect for each other and the unique experiences each woman brings to the table.” The guiding principles clearly show the qualities and skills City of Joy hopes to develop in its residents:
- TELL THE TRUTH
- STOP WAITING TO BE RESCUED; TAKE INITIATIVE
- KNOW YOUR RIGHTS
- RAISE YOUR VOICE
- SHARE WHAT YOU’VE LEARNED
- GIVE WHAT YOU WANT THE MOST
- FEEL AND TELL THE TRUTH ABOUT WHAT YOU’VE BEEN THROUGH
- USE IT TO FUEL A REVOLUTION
- PRACTICE KINDNESS
- TREAT YOUR SISTERS’ LIFE AS IF IT WERE YOUR OWN (City of Joy)
One of the most interesting things about this list is that it is clearly geared toward supporting activist women who advocate for themselves, who speak out, who will take action and who will support one another. Among their four major strategies for increasing women’s participation in the peace process, O’Reilly et. al include “create the conditions to make women’s voices heard” (29). This is a goal of City of Joy that shows clearly in its governance and the guiding principles..
It is interesting to compare these goals to what Hawkesworth talks about under the heading of “Feminist Civil Society.” She expresses concern about the movement toward “feminist NGOs,” which can have the drawback of being more accountable to the people who fund them than they are to the people they are trying to serve. In particular, she is concerned about NGOs being “not subject to democratic control” (172). Democracy at City of Joy does not extend to overall control of the project but seems like more of a lesson in how democracy works. Although the idea for City of Joy came from survivors themselves, the community is still run by staff and depends on its sources of funding. The creation of City of Joy included funding from UNICEF, but the driving forces were the Panzi Foundation and V-Day. Hopefully the values of these two organizations can keep City of Joy loyal to its goals.
From its founding, City of Joy has been all about coalitions. Its strongest allies are the Panzi Foundation and V-Day. This particular coalition wasn’t created by City of Joy; City of Joy was created by the coalition. In writing about City of Joy it was sometimes hard to separate it from these other two groups. Even City of Joy’s web address is tied into V-Day. “Since 2007, a widespread global campaign in support of the women of Congo has been harnessed by V-Day activists, keeping a sustained media focus on the issue and raising much needed funds for the immediate needs of communities on the ground in the Congo” (City of Joy). Participation of V-Day has brought international attention to the atrocities against women in Congo DRC and supports Sharonia and Abdulhadi’s observation that “there are promising signs of an emerging transnational feminist solidarity” (655). V-Day exemplifies what Hawkesworth calls a “vibrant transnational network” (277) that every day draws more people into participation.
The ability to involve celebrities in raising awareness is another example of this. Eve Ensler has used her celebrity to support her activism in so many ways. She has attracted other celebrities who have contributed their talents to raising awareness. For example, dancer Debbie Allen choreographed and was a featured performer in a powerful music video, “Break the Chain,” produced by 1 Billion Rising. (1 Billion Rising). In 2010 Charlize Theron visited Panzi Hospital and wrote passionately about the “atrocities beyond anything that I have ever heard of or could imagine” (8) and about the work of V-Day and Panzi Hospital and their plan to create City of Joy. Contacts like this are so important to raise awareness and to attract donors.
Raising money to support City of Joy is a most important function of the coalitions. The community needs to have a steady supply of funds in order to operate. Sometimes funding comes from sources that have interest in particular projects and are willing to contribute. As an example, the farm was created by forming a coalition with the 11th Hour Project. This is a family foundation whose website states “we find new opportunities for a healthier, more balanced, and dynamic relationship with our natural world.” They also state “growing beyond an old economy based on extraction and waste towards a regenerative economy means advancing frameworks that value healthy ecosystems, active civic engagement, and social equity.” (11th Hour Project). And finally, they emphasize programs that involve their making strong relationships with organizations led by people of color.
Building Strength Through Access to Critical Resources
The most critical resource for City of Joy is money. The main strategy for obtaining funds to keep its work moving forward is the coalition. Dr. Mukwege and Panzi Hospital were instrumental in the beginning of the project, because Dr. Mukwege interested Eve Ensler in what was going on. She responded powerfully and made the program a priority of the V-Day movement. He also used his foundation to provide seed money to help create the community. Dr. Mukwege also speaks all over the world bringing awareness and needed resources to the problem. Ensler uses her art to expand awareness and raise funds. Every year on V-Day there are performances of Vagina Monologues all over the world, and the proceeds go to projects like City of Joy.
City of Joy and its supporting organizations appear to have commitment and talent for identifying organizations to partner with. This is a really important skill. Supporters come and go, and getting funds from multiple sources strengthens your base. Also, by using funding sources with specific interests, such as the 11th Hour Project, it becomes possible to do special projects that enhance your central mission, such as V-World Farm.
Opponents—Winning Them Over, Eroding Their Support
There is not yet much dialogue with the perpetrators of the violence and abuse suffered by the women of the Congo. There is a clip from the movie The Greatest Silence: Rape in the Congo that can be found in a number of places on the Internet. This clip shows Congolese soldiers who raped talking about why they did it. Mostly what they say is about justifying what they did, and they don’t seem to show remorse or awareness of the damage they have done. The fact that the filmmaker was able to have these men speak for the film seems important because it seemed to open the dialog. But the film was made eight years ago, and there doesn’t seem to be any sign that the dialog with perpetrators has continued.
In defining who is the opponent, however, it is a mistake just to think of it in terms of those who actually raped. Those who make these rapes profitable can be viewed at least as supporting the opponent, or as opponents themselves. In this sense the movement is opposed by anyone who purchases minerals harvested by those who use rape to get what they want. “The exploitation of Congo’s natural resources is a significant factor in the continuing atrocities. The mining industry here is driven by foreign demand, and will change only with international pressure for human rights and ethical business practices” (DeSchryver 12). The word is getting out about blood minerals, and there is more dialog about how to address this issue. It is hard to say how much City of Joy contributes to this conversation, but its coalition members are having an impact. V-Day is getting the message out about women in the Congo, and the members of this movement are spreading the word. But as we know peacebuilding is still mostly male territory, so the most visible person of the coalition who is carrying this truth to power is Dr. Denis Mukwege of Panzi Hospital. Dr. Mukwege has brought the case to the UN in strong terms, asking why the international community has remained indifferent. Mukwege is clear about who the opponent is.
The driving mechanism behind the war is a rational system that ultimately benefits the military, commercial, and political elites from the DRC and other countries. Finding the political will to restrain the activity of the elite networks and their supporters is the most important element in effectively halting the illegal exploitation of resources. (Mukwege and Nangini 4)
The voices of women in the Congo are not silent. As early as 2009 Christine Schuler Deschryver, City of Joy Director, reported on Hillary Clinton’s visit to Congo DRC during which she promised funds to aid victims. Gbowee reported on leading workshops in the Congo in 2009 and remarked on the courage of the women she met there, describing a group of women who went directly to meet with a rebel leader asking for peace (229). But despite this the patriarchy still has the upper hand, and the profitability in the Congo is driving the violence.
When the voices of truth get loud enough, even western governments and multinational corporations have to respond. The word has gotten out about blood minerals, and there is now legislation, the U.S. Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act (PDF), requiring companies “to track these minerals right back to the mine they were dug” (Heath). Some companies feel like this is too much trouble in Congo DRC and so they are avoiding Congolese mines entirely. They are saying that this is a de facto embargo that hurts Congo, but in fact the money from these minerals doesn’t benefit the people anyway. And many Congolese mines are not even trying to comply with these tracking requirements but instead are selling to Chinese companies, who don’t care where the minerals came from or at what cost they were mined. When I am most discouraged by this I try to remember how long it took for companies to divest from South African companies as a protest against apartheid. The louder the voices of suffering speak, the harder it will be for the world to play deaf.
Maintaining Courage and Nonviolent Discipline
In the prologue to her book Mighty Be Our Powers, Laymah Gbowee states
Modern war stories often resemble each other, not because the circumstances are alike but because they’re told in the same way… They are all about the power of destruction… Now watch the reports again, but look more carefully, at the background, for that is where you will find the women… Our suffering is just a sidebar to the main tale… If we are African we are even more likely to be marginalized and painted solely as pathetic—hopeless expressions, torn clothes, sagging breasts. Victims. That is the image of us that the world is used to, and the image that sells. (vii)
The guiding principles of City of Joy show the opposite of this image of victim. Taking initiative and not waiting to be rescued, raising your voice, telling the truth, knowing your rights, fuel a revolution, this is a model of courage.
Courage is also maintained through mass action. 1 Billion Rising, part of the core coalition that includes City of Joy, defines itself as “the biggest mass action to end violence against women” (1 Billion Rising). They use protest, strikes, and dancing “to create a new kind of consciousness—one where violence will be resisted until it is unthinkable” (1 Billion Rising). The group becomes the source of courage for the individuals in it. According to O’Reilly et. al
Women are particularly well placed to exert influence on a peace process through mass action. Though women are usually in a minority among governments and armed groups that typically get a seat at the peace table, as well as among other highlevel power holders that may influence the negotiations in other ways, women are often particularly active members of civil society and grassroots movements advocating for peace. In addition, in conflict zones women often have more freedom of movement than men as they are not typically perceived as belligerents. (19)
The City of Joy also recognizes the importance of nonviolent discipline, and they have built this into their structure. “Each house is viewed as a communal space and is overseen by a burgomaster who is assisted by a ‘policewoman’—both help to maintain a respectful and warm environment” (City of Joy). Classes and the principles of the culture end up helping people to learn nonviolent discipline, but in the meantime the structure protects the community and preserves nonviolence.
Security and Peace in the Community or Society
Peace and security in Democratic Republic of Congo has been disrupted by the most powerful forces in the world: multinational corporations and western governments. On the ground in eastern Congo DRC, not much has changed. But the actions of City of Joy’s affiliated groups are bringing awareness in the west. There have been small changes, such as the legislation aimed at reducing the use of conflict minerals. Because of its mineral wealth, bringing peace to Congo DRC involves challenging the entire worldwide patriarchal system. It will be a long and difficult process.
On the other hand, City of Joy is making great changes in the surrounding community in Kivu. The V-World farm is one of the projects that is helping the local community. The farm has “made great friends with our neighbors through intensive outreach efforts, even given some a plot of land so they are with us in our efforts” (City of Joy). They also planted 20,000 trees. In a blog Eve Ensler addressed the issue of community impact.
We have built wonderful relationships with the surrounding Panzi community. Many rose with us for One Billion Rising. Just today we met with 60 women who live in the very difficult circumstances of the tent camp outside our doors. These women are the wives of soldiers and they have been all but abandoned by everyone including the government. Today we were able to give each of them financial support and sisterly solidarity. The joy and gratitude were astounding. Our circle is expanding daily and the light of City of Joy is shining in many directions. (City of Joy)
Community Initiatives for Peace
City of Joy itself is an example of an initiative for peace developed as part of the movement. “This program is solely owned, run, and determined by the Congolese. It is their vision and their huge success” (City of Joy).
City of Joy also participated with its coalition partner 1 Billion Rising to create a mass action in Bukavu in February 2015, and in the capital city of Kinshasa for the first time.
The rising justifies how Congolese can’t cease voicing their intolerance of violence through dance and drumming in order to stand for gender equity, human rights, transitional justice, etc. During the campaign we took action to explain what revolution means and looks like. It is transformation. It is the change of old degrading systems and patriarchy. It is the change of paradigm (City of Joy)
City of Joy has also brought out a group of men to speak out against injustice against women in Congo DRC. In 2014 20 men from the area around City of Joy in South Kivu began a movement called V-Men Congo.
Lead by Dr. Denis Mukwege, the “Godfather” of the International V-Men movement, this group of lawyers, teachers, doctors, athletes, activists, military men, and policeman, have been meeting in Bukavu for the past several months, designing a vision of what the movement looks like in Congo, and what it means to be a V-Man (V-Day).
Their declaration states that they are responding to cries of “Where are the men?” They affirmed the equality of men and women and how patriarchal societies keep women “in an inferior status of second-class citizens and modern slaves.” They stated that “Women’s rights are not only of interest to feminists, it is a global issue, it is our common humanity, and concerns the future of our society.” (1 Billion Rising Revolution).
New Institutions and Systems to Address Root Causes of Grievances and Violence
City of Joy itself is a creation of its coalition partners, especially V-Day and the Panzi Foundation and is one of those new institutions. The experiment represented by this community has been very successful, “a model for turning pain to power and planting, for transforming trauma into joy and leadership, for healing through land and love” (City of Joy). Eve Ensler and Christine Schuler Deschryver plan to write a manual based on the work in Bukavu to describe “what we have learned and how City of Joys could be spread everywhere” (City of Joy).
Awareness generated by these movements has helped to bring about a system change in the Security and Exchange Commission required by “section 1502 of the U.S. Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act” (Heath). This change gets right to the root of the problem, by requiring companies to disclose their use of conflict minerals.
Coalition partners have helped to create new systems that get to the root causes. For example, the 11th Hour Project funded an organization called ABA ROLI (American Bar Association Rule of Law Initiative), to provide assistance to communities in South Kivu Province.
They are developing a paralegal model that trains Congolese citizens to provide immediate legal services to those affected by violence. They are also working in communities impacted by large-scale mining, helping to identify industry best practices and addressing their sustainable development needs. (11th Hour Project).
The Global Press Institute is another partner that received a grant from 11th Hour Project. GPI operates in Haiti and Congo DRC and “uses journalism as a development tool to educate, employ and empower women in the developing world to produce high-quality local news coverage that elevates global awareness and ignites social change.” Through funding professional women journalists its aim is to produce “world-changing news coverage from some of the world’s most under-represented communities” (11th Hour Project).
The Fund for Global Human Rights is yet another project supported by 11th Hour. It operates in Congo DRC and in neighboring Burundi and works “to hold institutions of power to account for respecting human rights.” Its strategies involve bringing resources to existing human rights groups and giving knowledge and assistance to help these organizations to be effective advocates (11th Hour Project).
Resisting Hate and Provocations to Violence
The most effective technique that City of Joy has developed to resist hate and provocations to violence is the program itself. They take in women between the ages of 18 and 30 who have survived sexual violence. In their literature you don’t find discussions about the perpetrators. Instead you find emphasis on the value of each woman, on her ability to recover from violent trauma and to use her experience to become a leader. They emphasize community and the advancement of women. They train participants to be leaders and activists. Hate and violence are the weapons of those who traumatized them. Instead the women are provided with “the essential ingredients needed to move forward in life—love and community” (City of Joy).
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