Sat, Feb 12, 2011 - Page 9 News List

Fighting DR Congo’s ills with education and an army of women

Eve Ensler has helped to open a base in Bukavu called City of Joy, where women are taught the skills they need to rebuild the nation from within

By Jeffrey Gettleman  /  NY Times News Service, BUKAVU, DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF CONGO

Eve Ensler has an audacious plan.

For years, diplomats, aid workers, academics and government officials in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DR Congo) have been vexed almost to the point of paralysis about how to attack the 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 the nation.

Sending in more troops has compounded the problem. UN 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 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.”

Last weekend, Ensler took the first step toward building this army — the opening of a base 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 community so they can eventually rise up and, Ensler hopes, change the nation’s sclerotic politics. They will take courses in self-defense, computers and human rights; learn trades and farming; try to exorcise their traumas in 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 about US$1 million. UNICEF contributed a substantial amount, and the rest was raised from foundations and private donors by 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.

However, Ensler has faced long odds before, working with 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 [DR] 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.”

DR 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 on Friday last week, 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 Ensler envisioned was mustering in front of her eyes. Some even danced with the shovels and cement-encrusted trowels they used to build the City of Joy.

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