(WOMENSENEWS)--It's 4 o'clock in the morning; time for 27-year-old Georgina Miranda to wake up. Crawling out of bed, she straps a 40-pound pack full of water bottles on her back and hits the hiking trail. She won't stop until she makes it 12 miles. The next morning, before anyone else is up, she runs along the dim sidewalks of her Los Angeles neighborhood. Then she hits the weights.
Miranda isn't a professional athlete; until recently, she didn't even consider herself a serious athlete. She's the development director at Angeles Group, a Los Angeles residential development firm.
But hiking is the way she's devised to try to help the tens of thousands of victims of gender-based violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Last week the conflict flared in the eastern part of the nation shortly after a United Nations envoy requested more peacekeeping troops to help prevent the violence from spreading more broadly through central parts of Africa. Amnesty International warned last month that thousands of women are being raped and child soldiers brutalized amid renewed fighting.
Through her "Climb Take Action--Seven Summits Challenge," Miranda plans to hike to Seven Summits, the tallest peak on each continent, to raise $2.2 million to help the humanitarian aid organization International Medical Corps, based in Santa Monica, Calif., advance its work in Congo and its eastern neighbor, Uganda.
It works out to $50 for each meter she plans to climb.
She reached her first of the seven summits, Russia's 18,510-foot Mount Elbrus, on July 22, and hopes that will prove she's up to the challenge. Her next climb will be determined by the size and number of pledges made for her challenge.
One Down, Seven
Miranda will climb the Seven Summits, the tallest peaks on each continent, over the next few years.
The seventh of the peaks is disputed by climbers based on how the continent of Australia-Oceania is defined, and whether it includes the Malay Archipelago. Miranda plans to climb both Carstensz and Kosciuszko.
Health Care for Countries in Crisis
In its 24 years of operation, the International Medical Corps, Miranda's pledged beneficiary, has worked in 45 countries to bring health care to locals during crises. More than 80 percent of the staff is internally displaced people the group has trained. That means their skills remain in the communities for the long-term.
"We not only provide relief, we build the capacity of the community to improve their lives in a sustainable way," said spokesperson Crystal Wells. "A simple handout is not enough."
Miranda's journey began in August 2007 when she read a column in Glamour about the separate, but parallel, gender-based brutality unfolding in the Congo and in the northern part of Uganda.
In the August 2008 issue of Glamour, editor in chief Cindi Leive wrote, "When I heard about Georgina's trip, I was impressed, humbled, but not surprised, because there are so many fierce, fabulous Georginas out there--women who, when they hear that the world has a problem, assume that, naturally, they should be the ones to fix it."
The problems in Congo and Uganda are plentiful. Nearly 1.2 million people--or 80 percent of the population of northern Uganda--have been driven off their land by a two-decades-long civil conflict. In their displacement camps, women trade sex for the most basic of necessities, while the Lord's Resistance Army rebel group has abducted tens of thousands of children, forcing them to act as either soldiers or sex slaves.
More than 32,000 rapes have been registered in the region of South Kivu since 2005, according to the United Nations, but since its figures only account for registered rapes, the actual number is much higher. Civilians, rather than organized soldiers, reportedly account for 60 percent of the acts of sexual violence, nearly double the figure from 2006.
"It's becoming part of the culture," said Gobeh. "And the Congolese community has been so shattered that there's no mechanism to fight back."
She said many women are either shunned from their communities or encouraged to accept bribes--some for $5--to stay quiet about the injustices.
'I Had No Idea'
"It is so gruesome and disturbing . . . and I had no idea," Miranda said. "I thought, 'Why am I not seeing this in the news?'"
Woseh Gobeh, the corps' program coordinator for the eastern region of the Democratic Republic of Congo, has the answer. "Because it's lasted for so long," she said in a telephone interview with Women's eNews.
Gobeh, who has lived and worked in eastern Congo for nearly two years, says donors' funding has been cut by more than half since the conflicts began more than 20 years ago. She attributes this loss to discouragement among donors and the media over the lack of results from their original efforts.
The cornerstones of the group's work in camps in the Congo and Uganda are nutritional programs for women and children.
In Congo, many women and children are forced to flee their homes after husbands and fathers are killed. They often spend time fending for themselves in dense forests without food, shelter or protection. They often rely on cassava, a root that has no protein and little nutritional value. It often causes the body to retain water, inducing a sense of fullness from bloating. But while that fights the worse hunger pangs, it causes dangerous edema, or swelling, in which the skin becomes so saturated with water that it cracks due to the fluid pressure.
Others simply do not eat. Margaret Aguirre, a spokesperson with the International Medical Corps who has traveled extensively in both countries, said the surge in global food prices is putting a major stress on supplies. Prices are simply too high.
"They don't have any other place to cut back; if you can't afford the food, you eat less," Aguirre said. "You just can't imagine what a 14-month-old child who weighs two pounds looks like."
Successful Nutrition Programs
The corps' Congo and Uganda nutrition programs have had a 90-percent recovery rate with their patients, including many who are children under 5 and pregnant women.
At the request of the mothers, corps staff at one nutrition center have taken pictures of the women and children who visit the clinic both before and after treatment. They are displayed on the plastic sheets that serve as walls for the facility.
"When women come in with dying babies, they see these photos," Aguirre said. "It helps to show them that no matter how bad it looks there's still a chance."
That's the same message the corps tries to give tens of thousands of women who come through its doors as rape survivors. In both countries, rape has been used as a weapon of war, meant to terrorize and wound communities.
Miranda would love corporate sponsorship to help her reach her fundraising goal, but so far, all of her cash donors are individuals. Companies such as Lululemon Athletica, Valencia Perez and Echeveste Public Relations, and Pacific Coast Concepts have donated everything from public-relations assistance to water bottles.
She held a fundraiser, called Hike 2 Empower, in Los Angeles Sept. 27 that raised about $8,000, and she has launched two Web sites, Climbtakeaction.com and Hike2Empower.org, to draw more people to the cause.
Aleisha Fetters studies journalism and gender studies at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. She also writes for Women's Health magazine.
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