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Turn Pain to Power

Tue, 10/06/2009

Somewhere on this planet right now a girl or woman is standing up for her rights, refusing to be cut or sold or beaten or raped or married off or denied school and resources. I have watched V-Day, the global movement to end violence against women and girls, grow in 11 years from one event in New York City to 4,200 events in over 1,400 places on the planet in 2009. I have seen small shelters become huge organizations, grassroots leaders become elected officials, and survivors who at one time could hardly speak above a whisper, confront world leaders. I have seen a taboo word become mainstream and a taboo subject take the front pages.

I have seen all of this, and yet the UN statistic that one in three women will be beaten or raped in her lifetime remains true today. Women and girls bear the brunt of war, economic exploitation, racism and a failing international economy.

Nowhere in the world is this more true then in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), a country that has been embroiled in a horrific war for more than 12 years, where an economic war has created a virtual hell for women and girls. Where nearly 5.4 million people have died and hundreds of thousands of women and girls have been brutally raped and sexually tortured. The DRC is a place where you can feel the contaminating impact of colonial exploitation and greed. King Leopold II of Belgium, who in the 1880s exploited the country's natural resources (mainly rubber) through cruel forced labor and murders, set a precedent for the pillaging of the Congo's vast natural resources and exploitation of the Congolese people. In a country the size of Western Europe, that until recently remained invisible in the world's imagination, the grotesque suffering of millions, does not register in our consciousness. What the world has paid attention to are the resources of the Congo, reaping the tin, gold and coltan that gets used in our cell phones. This is most surely an economic war fought on the bodies of women.

As many of you know, this is the first time we have ever spotlighted one place for two consecutive years. I think it is safe to say that that eastern Congo is without a doubt the worst place on the planet to be a woman. The kind of violence, the numbers of women being violated, the fact that it is being done to infants and the very old, the fact that families are forced to watch the rapes. The fact that it has gone on in the face of an indifferent world for over 12 years and that the war is fueled by our greed for minerals that serve our phones and computers. All these would be compelling reasons to continue our campaign.

But there is another reason. The women of the Congo are fierce. They have been organizing for years to fight for freedom, for peace, for their rights. In the last two years of our campaign we have been able to support and amplify their grassroots efforts and help build a women's movement on the ground, training activists throughout the country. They are changing the story of women in the DRC. They are marching, making new laws, speaking out, breaking the silence, creating collectives of survivors who are planting fields, developing new small businesses. They are teaching and dancing and training, creating art and building media networks.

In 2009, V-Day's focus on the women and girls of the DRC raised over a one million dollars and brought the issue of violence in the DRC to the attention of millions of people throughout the world through thousands of V-Day benefits, 1,000 teach-ins, dynamic social media and massive outreach. Dr. Denis Mukwege, the founder of Panzi Hospital in Bukavu, and I toured America. Thousands came out to hear this extraordinary man and were compelled to join our movement. For the first time ever, Congolese women stood in front of their friends, family, neighbors and elected officials and broke the silence, sharing their stories of abuse and violence in Goma, Bukavu and Kinshasa.

In the past year, due to the impact and pressure of our campaign, and the work of many other groups, we are making enormous strides. Secretary Clinton visited the DRC and made sexual violence a front-page issue. Through advocacy we were able to address European and Canadian parliaments and the U.S. Senate. We met with world leaders in Paris and London. We were able to penetrate the media and get this issue into The New York Times, The Guardian, The Washington Post, CNN and more. We have joined forces with many groups on the ground and around the world. We started construction on the City of Joy, a transformational community where women's pain will be turned into their power, enabling them to be leaders and providing them with a place to heal emotionally as they rebuild their lives. At the site, groundbreaking programming in human rights, activism, economic literacy, group therapy, storytelling, dance, theater, self-defense, comprehensive sexuality education, and agriculture will provide women with important life-skills, emboldening them to shatter gender norms and be leaders in Congolese society. The community will also run an income-generating program and have its own program on the local women-run radio station. I am also pleased to tell you that half the 80-person construction crew is women.

There is a momentum. We are creating a template for advocacy and movement building that we can apply worldwide. If we can end violence against women and girls in the DRC, we can end it everywhere.

Continue fighting to free the women in your home, your family, on your block, in your school, at your job, in every corner of the world. Be bolder, speak louder, give everything. This is the moment. The door is open. It's as if we have one limb through, now if we can get our bodies through, it will never close again.


With love and gratitude,
Eve Ensler