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Why I Am A V-Man

Vava Tampa

Growing up, I do not recall having ever thought deeply about equality of the sexes. When friends ask why I work for Save the Congo, I have always responded that I became an activist by accident; and remained one out of necessity. Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine that I would become a foot soldier in the cause of justice and human dignity. The fact that men and women were not treated equally did not occur to me as a boy.

The first time that I began to realize the degree of inequality between the sexes is the day I found my aunty weeping hysterically after my uncle died. I was six years old. Her husband had just been buried and this poor lady had been chucked out her house with her kid, with nothing but the clothes on their back and what they could carry. This was when I learned that tradition entitled a husband's birth family to all of his possessions after death, while guaranteeing no inheritance for women. My aunty lost everything, even those things that had belonged to her.

This was shocking enough, and the more I learned, the worse I felt. Women in Congo need written permission from their husbands before they can be employed. This has been the case since the country gained independence in 1960. Mobutu, who was in power for 32 years before being chased out of the country in his pyjamas in 1997, said Congolese women were so beautiful that they must be driven (thus preventing women from driving), and so special that they were forbidden from lifting anything that weighed more than 5 kilograms, which precluded most forms of employment.

My biggest wake up call came in 2007. I ran across a story of a girl from the Kivus in eastern Congo who had been gang raped. After the ordeal, the perpetrators shoved a corn cob inside her, which cause her to develop fistula. It was the first time that I learned the meaning of fistula. She was 13 years old. Thirteen! I could not believe it.

Her story changed the aims and objectives of my life. We have dozens of teenage girls in my family, and I could not imagine what we would do if this had happened to us. On that day, because of that girl, I made a decision to use all of my strength and conviction to make sure that neither her experience nor her voice would go unnoticed or unheard. I made a decision to fight for the rights of women as long as I live, so that women and girls might be safe to walk the street of Ituri, Kiwanja, and Masisi without the fear of being raped.

I am a V-Man because of this 13-year-old child. I am a V-Man because in my beloved Congo, where an average of 48 women and girls are raped every hour of every day. I am a V-Man because, in the 21st century, when millions of females in Africa are subjected to sexual mutilation, I refuse to allow my own children and grandchildren to grapple with the same fate. I am a V-Man because I want my daughter and my niece to enjoy rights, freedom and opportunities on a same scale allowed to my son and nephew. I am a V-Man because of Dr. Denis Mukwege, who, beneath the cloud of wars, insecurity, and inhumanity, has been working day and night to surgically and emotionally rebuild women whose insides were blown apart by rifle blasts and whose bodies now leak uncontrollable streams of urine and feces. Elie Wiesel once said: ". . . there may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest." That is the credo I live by.

My motto is very simple: do what you can with what you have, where you are, right now. The way I see it, the family of man will gain its true dignity only when women are honoured, protected, and seen for what they are: the fountain of life itself.

Vava Tampa is the founding director of Save the Congo -a not-for-profit and non-political global campaigning organisation working to raise awareness of the human tragedy overwhelming the Congo, and to change social condition that often give rise to wars, poverty, corruption and abuse.

Born in the Congo, where over 5.4 million have died from what has been described as the 'world's most lethal conflict since World War Two', and 'the worst humanitarian tragedy since the Holocaust,' Vava uses the transformative power of story to challenge, inform and entertain his audience on many of the key issues of the day.

Vava is reachable on twitter: @VavaTampa | www.savethecongo.org.uk