BUKAVU, Democratic Republic of Congo (WOMENSENEWS)--The opening ceremonies here for the City of Joy were full of singing, dancing, cheers and signs of hope--in the smiling faces of women who had survived rape--of being safe at last.
The City of Joy is a project to empower the women of the Democratic Republic of Congo, centered around a compound of buildings that the women envisioned for themselves: small houses for privacy, meeting rooms, open fields for gardens and children's playgrounds.
A six-month program for its 90 residents will include psychosocial treatment, literacy and life skills and vocational training. The goal is to create a movement of female leaders for a peaceful future in the country.
"This is a turning point for the women of the Congo," said Eve Ensler, founder of V-Day, the international organization against gender-based violence, and the guiding light behind the program. "The City of Joy will be a gathering place for the women to find their voices, their vision and their power. And when the women find their power, all of the Congo will change."
Ensler, who was wearing her hair cropped short after coming through chemotherapy treatments, called the opening day "the happiest day of my life."
During the 13 years of the ongoing conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo, it is estimated that over 500,000 women have been raped and tortured in the most brutal and savage way, resulting in serious medical and psychological suffering.
Women and young girls have endured kidnapping, sexual slavery and forced prostitution. Due to the stigma attached to rape, those who survive are often too ashamed to go back to their villages and have no way to support themselves and their children.
Chance to Speak Out
The Feb. 4 ceremony--which drew a contingent of foreign women, including myself--gave some of the women a chance to speak out. Several women stood at a microphone before the multitude of guests listing their demands for respect and equal rights.
Melanne Verveer, the U.S. State Department's global ambassador for women's rights was there. So were representatives from UNICEF (which donated some of the construction costs) and other philanthropists. A few Hollywood American movie stars were also among those who listened.
Speaking in strong voices and without notes (Ensler said the women had practiced their speeches for days), wearing T-shirts that read "stop raping our greatest resource," they demanded a legal system that would protect their rights and bring rapists to justice. They demanded drug treatment for HIV/AIDS and support for children born of rape.
The ceremony was packed from early morning to late night with visits and briefings, as well as a performance of Ensler's play "The Vagina Monologues" in French.
Many Congolese men in the audience, which included local politicians, seemed uncomfortable at first, but by the end they were laughing and cheering.
Foreign visitors came and went to the events in a motorcade of a dozen jeeps that bounced through the potholed roads and insanely crowded streets of Bukavu, packed with scooters, cows, women balancing jugs of water on their heads and little girls hunched over from heavy bunches of firewood that they carried with head straps.
Mukwege Was There
Dr. Denis Mukwege, the charismatic and humble founder of Panzi Hospital, which takes care of hundreds of women and girl survivors of rape and torture every year, many of whom are infected with the HIV/AIDS virus, was also on the scene.
He is a hero to V-Day supporters.
"When I shook his hand, I felt as if I was in the presence of the Pope," said one awe-struck woman.
"Oh, what a different world it would be if he were Pope," said another.
Stephen Lewis, a former Canadian ambassador to the United Nations who is a benefactor of the hospital, vowed he would pressure the world governments to make HIV/AIDS drugs affordable and available. The women cheered and waved their hands, their fingers spread into a "V."
"I thought this trip would be very hard for me emotionally," one visitor said. "But when you are around these women, you can feel their strength and see the determination in their faces to change their lives. There is such a feeling of hope."
Seeing the joyful exuberance of the women it was hard to imagine the horrors they have endured. Mama Bachu, the matriarch of the City of Joy, noted that the women were still vulnerable, not only to ongoing rapes, but also to domestic violence and denial of basic rights.
But it was a time for celebration and the woman everyone wanted to be near and hug was Ensler.
"Feel the energy," a radiant Ensler said at one point, as she stood in a vast field at the center of the compound while giving a tour of the facilities. She envisioned classes for the women in dance, karate, yoga and jewelry making, a radio station, a computer center, even a sauna.
But inadequate funding limits the outlook for many of the rape survivors who can't come to the City of Joy. Little of the $17 million U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton pledged 16 months ago to fight sexual violence has been delivered to the area.
"You know, money is not the answer," a U.S. government official at the ceremonies told Women's eNews, saying the volatile politics over control of the Democratic Republic of Congo's vast resources and the after effects of the Rwandan genocide, which has created a serious humanitarian crisis, had to be resolved.
The City of Joy was designed pro bono by the Chicago architecture firm Stephen Rankin Associates, with funding from V-Day, private donations, Panzi Foundation and UNICEF.
And it's easy to find other opportunities to invest in women here.
One afternoon Ensler took a number of us to the countryside to visit the Green Mamas, an organization of rape survivors. The women were farming a small parcel of land, planting green beans and cassava, feeding goats with leaves and then using goat waste to fertilize the land. They use the produce to feed their families and sell it in the markets.
The women came dancing and singing down the road to greet us, carrying a banner for the Women's Association for Conservation and Sustainable Development.
Their leader, Mama Germaine Buttendwa, told Ensler how she wished they had more fields to grow more crops closer to their villages so the women did not have to walk so many miles to work.
"How much does an acre cost?" Ensler asked.
"Four thousand dollars," said Buttendwa.
Ensler made eye contact with one of her V-day board members from San Francisco who smiled and nodded.
When Buttendwa told the news to the women, they broke into joyous cheers.
The sun was setting. The women picked up their shovels and hoes to make the long walk home. Soon, that walk would not be not so long.
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Jurate Kazickas is a freelance reporter and a member of the Women's eNews advisory board.
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