By Jurate Kazickas
Monday, February 14, 2011
Valentine's Day came early for Jurate Kazickas at a celebration in early February in the Democratic Republic of Congo marking the opening of the City of Joy, a recovery sanctuary for rape survivors. Eve Ensler was radiant at the center of it all.
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.
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.