By: Rati Bishnoi, Special Projects Intern
Sometimes called the most dangerous place in the world for women, the Democratic Republic of Congo last month was the location of an extraordinary display of hope and courage by survivors of sexual violence. On Feb. 4, the doors opened to the City of Joy—a revolutionary community for survivors of sexual violence and rape that offers Congolese women shelter from war and a safe space to heal, rebuild, and reclaim their lives and communities.
A conflict defined by rape
Since 1996, hundreds of thousands of women and girls have been raped and experienced sexual violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo as a result of a lingering conflict fueled by ethnic tensions and the battle over the resource rich nation’s gold and mineral wealth. Rape as a weapon of war has become a distinctive feature of the conflict, which to date has taken the lives of millions of people, according to the International Rescue Committee.
The conflict and humanitarian crisis continues to take tens of thousands of lives per month, with many of the deaths caused by rape. By some estimates, some regions have as many as 40 rapes per day. For those who survive, rape and sexual violence have severe psychological and physical effects. Many survivors of rape in the Congo have genital lesions, traumatic fistulae, severed and broken limbs, unwanted pregnancies, and sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV. Others suffer internal injuries that make them unable to bear children. Furthermore, survivors are often shunned by their communities and families after a rape and abandoned by husbands.
One of the brave individuals on the frontline of this sexual war is Dr. Denis Mukwege, founder and director of the Panzi Hospital in Bukavu. Mukwege, who last week was named by Women Deliver as one of the 100 most inspiring people delivering for girls and women, is expert at treating the wounds of extreme sexual violence. The Panzi Hospital is one of the only institutions in the country dedicated to caring for the war’s survivors and has treated more than 21,000 women. Mukwege tirelessly works to bring attention to the way in which rape has been systematically used to shred the social fabric of the Congo.
For many women, Mukwege states, the sexual violence they face is so severe and damaging that they feel valueless and stripped of their identifies as women. Mukwege recounts a story of a young patient who was kept as a sex slave, raped by passing soldiers for several days as a time, and became pregnant. “It was tragic,” Mukwege told The Times. “The baby was stillborn. But her internal injuries were too severe to repair… In her own eyes, she is no longer a woman.”
City of Joy is a ray of hope for survivors
Often known as the doctor who “puts women back together,” Mukwege in partnership with “Vagina Monologues” Playwright and V-Day Founder Eve Ensler, and 180 Congolese survivors of rape have collaborated to create a safe space for women to reclaim their sense of self and agency. Sheltered in the foothills of Bukavu near the Panzi Hospital, the City of Joy is a community where survivors can turn pain into power by healing themselves and rebuilding and reclaiming their lives. Built by the hands of survivors, the City of Joy compound of homes, classrooms, courtyards, and verandas is where these women will gain the leadership skills necessary to one day reshape Congo. City of Joy’s first cohort of leaders will learn self-defense, farming and business skills, and receive group therapy and comprehensive sexual education, including HIV/AIDS and family planning. More importantly, the women will run, operate, and direct City of Joy themselves.
The center will also serve as the campaigns headquarters for “Stop Raping Our Greatest Resource,” a campaign launched by Ensler to mobilize activists, organize demonstrations and workshops, and enable survivors to speak out against sexual violence in Congo.
According to Mukwege, the women who have built and live in City of Joy are saying, “’I protest. I won’t take what is happening to me anymore. I want freedom.’ The war goes on, but their attitudes are changing and it is the start of a revolution.”
Photo by Paula Allen