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.
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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