UNITED NATIONS (WOMENSENEWS)–Last summer, news in the United States that Jaycee Dugard had been kept in captivity in Antioch, Calif., for 18 years and raped by her captor until her Aug. 28 rescue was widely considered shocking.
But as an exhibit of 38 photographs here this month demonstrates, women in the Democratic Republic of Congo have suffered similar ordeals on a widespread basis during the 11-year-long, multi-party conflict between government troops, rebels and bandits drawn to the country’s commercial mining opportunities.
The exhibit, "Congo: Women Portraits of War: The Democratic Republic of Congo," was co-produced by the Ellen Stone Belic Institute for the Study of Women and Gender in the Arts and Media at Columbia College Chicago and Art Works Projects: Art and Design for Human Rights, a Chicago-based organization that addresses human rights issues through art and design. It was funded mainly by the United Nations Population Fund and Humanity United, a nongovernmental organization that provides grants to programs that aim to eliminate conflict and modern-day slavery by building community.
The exhibit showcases gender-based violence against women in the Congo, with photos and essays that portray the women and illustrate the context of their lives. Most of the shots were taken in clinics, refugee camps and other facilities where those displaced in the war have gone to seek help.
Sophie, for instance, was kidnapped and held for nearly three years in the bush by men she believes were Rwandan soldiers, according to the information accompanying the 2008 photo of the then–20-year-old sometime after her escape. She gave birth to one child in the forest and later escaped, but not before being impregnated again. No last name was given at the exhibit.
Rape: More Common Weapon of War
Thousands of women have been held as sex slaves and domestic workers throughout the chaotic years of fighting. Still others were raped as they simply went about their daily business–getting water for the family, shopping in the market, walking home. More than in any other place in the world, aids groups say, sexual violence is being used as a weapon of war in the Congo.
The exhibit, in the north lobby of the U.N. visitor’s area, has been up since Oct. 1. It will move on to Yale University on Nov. 10, finishing up at the Virginia Holocaust Museum at the end of April 2010.
The exhibit starts out by showing the context in which these women live their lives. This stood in stark contrast to the comfortable surroundings of the exhibit and the wine-and-cheese opening for well-heeled visitors in mid-October.
"To allow this to continue belittles the whole of humanity," Paul Neville, a member of the Australian Parliament, in town on U.N. business, told Women’s eNews at the exhibit opening. "Action against this sort of violence and abuse should go beyond the normal protocols. I knew of abuses in the Congo but this brings it home graphically, in a one-on-one type situation where we’re confronted with our own lack of engagement with these subjects. It’s artistic in its dreadful message."
The exhibit collects the work of photographers Lynsey Addario, Marcus Bleasdale, Ron Haviv and James Nachtwey, all award-winning journalists who have reported internationally for years.
Most Horrifying Experience
| "Congo/Women Portraits of War" Exhibit Schedule:
United Nations, N.Y.: Oct. 1–Nov 2
Yale University, New Haven, Conn.: Nov. 10–Nov. 24
USAID, Washington, D.C.: Dec. 1–Dec. 12
Eckerd College, St. Petersburg, Fla.: Approximately Jan. 2–Feb. 21, 2010
United Nations, Geneva, Switzerland: March 3–March 26
Virginia Holocaust Museum, Richmond, Va.: Approximately April 1–May 1
"It’s the most horrific thing that you can experience," veteran photojournalist Bleasdale told Women’s eNews, referring to the women’s ordeals. He said that in his more than 20 years of reporting and photographing abroad, the women’s stories are the worst testimonies he had listened to. He, Haviv and Nachtwey photographed and interviewed the women during the course of their reporting for numerous media. Addario, a fellow with the ESB Institute, photographed the women in the Congo specifically for this project.
The exhibit includes multimedia elements, such as snippets from the seven-part BBC documentary series, "Women on the Front Line," which profiles gender violence worldwide and was first broadcast in April 2008. There is also a haunting recording of excerpts from women’s accounts of their abuse, read by actress Cheryl Lynn Bruce.
Leslie Thomas, the exhibit’s curator and co-director (along with co-director and creative adviser Jane Saks) and a founder of Art Works Projects, said the women’s battles are unique. "Having a war fought inside you is not acceptable," she said.
"I will never stop advocating for these victims," United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said at the exhibit’s opening, which drew a few hundred people. "But let us remember: They are not just victims. They are so much more than the rape they suffered or the ordeal they have overcome. They are mothers, sisters and friends. They should be part of the effort to rebuild their societies. They can lead great and productive lives."
Journalist Theresa Braine covers international issues from her base in New York City.
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