The Congo

vdaylogoPlease read this article by Bob Herbert in the New York Times. It’s so important that people know what is happening to women and girls in the eastern Congo. Eve Ensler and her non profit organization V-Day on whose board I sit has done an amazing job bringing—forcing may be a more appropriate word– this crisis to people’s attention. After you’ve read what Bob Herbert says, you can go to the V-Day website to see what you can do to help. The site is featured on the front page of my blog.


The Invisible War


Bob Herbert

For years now, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, marauding bands of soldiers and militias have been waging a war of rape and destruction against women. This sustained campaign of mind-bending atrocities, mostly in the eastern part of the country, has been one of the strategic tools in a wider war that has continued, with varying degrees of intensity, since the 1990s. Millions have been killed.

Women and girls of all ages, from old women to very young children, have been gang-raped, and in many cases their sexual organs have been mutilated. The victims number in the hundreds of thousands. But the world, for the most part, has remained indifferent to their suffering.

“These women are raped in front of their husbands, in front of their children, in front of their parents, in front of their neighbors,” said Dr. Denis Mukwege, a gynecologist who runs a hospital in Bukavu that treats only the women who have sustained the most severe injuries.

In some cases, the rapists have violated their victims with loaded guns and pulled the triggers. Other women have had their organs deliberately destroyed by knives or other weapons. Sons have been forced at gunpoint to rape their mothers. Many women and girls have been abducted and sexually enslaved.

It is as if, in these particular instances, some window to what we think of as our common humanity had been closed. As The Times’s Jeffrey Gettleman, on assignment in Congo, wrote last fall:

“Many of these rapes have been marked by a level of brutality that is shocking even by the twisted standards of a place riven by civil war and haunted by warlords and drug-crazed child soldiers.”

Dr. Mukwege visited me at The Times last week. He was accompanied by the playwright, Eve Ensler, who has been passionate in her efforts to bring attention and assistance to the women of Congo.

I asked Dr. Mukwege to explain how it was in the strategic interest of the various armed groups to rape and otherwise brutalize women. He described some of the ramifications of such atrocities and the ways in which they undermine the entire society in which the women live.

“Once they have raped these women in such a public way,” he said, “sometimes maiming them, destroying their sexual organs — and with everybody watching — the women themselves are destroyed, or virtually destroyed. They are traumatized and humiliated on every level, physical and psychological. That’s the first consequence.

“The second consequence is that the whole family and the entire neighborhood is traumatized by what they have seen. The ordinary sense of family and community is lost after a man has been forced to watch his wife being raped, or parents are forced to watch the rape of their daughters, or children see their mothers raped.

“Neighbors are witnesses to this. Many flee. Families are dislocated. Social relationships are lost. There is no more social network, village network. Not only the victims have been destroyed; the whole village is destroyed.”

The devastating injuries treated by Dr. Mukwege at his hospital can all but stun the imagination. There is no need to detail them further here. AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases are commonplace. Often the ability to bear children is destroyed. In many other cases, women end up giving birth to the children of their rapists.

“The hospital can take care of 3,600 women every year,” said Dr. Mukwege. “That is our maximum capacity. We can’t take any more.”

He spoke of ambulance teams that would drive into villages and be besieged by rape victims desperately seeking treatment. “It is awful to see 300 women in need of help,” he said, “and you have to take 10 because the ambulance can only take 10.”

Ms. Ensler spoke of her encounter with an 8-year-old girl during one of her trips to Congo. The girl’s father had been killed in an attack, her mother was raped, and the girl herself was abducted. The child was raped by groups of soldiers over a two-week period and then abandoned.

The girl felt too ashamed to allow herself to be held, Ms. Ensler said, because her injuries had left her incontinent. After explaining how she persuaded the child to accept an embrace, to be hugged, Ms. Ensler said, “If we’re living in a century when an 8-year-old girl is incontinent because that many soldiers have raped her, then something has gone terribly wrong.”

Despite the presence in the region of the largest U.N. peacekeeping mission in the world, no one has been able to stop the systematic rape of the Congolese women.

If these are not war crimes, crimes against humanity, then nothing is.

A version of this article appeared in print on February 21, 2009, on page A21 of the New York edition.


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  1. It’s a sad thing to face, but it is also very real. The article was heartbreaking but, very real. No one deserves to be treated in such ways. If everyone educated themselves on what was going on in the world, and came together maybe something could be done to help these women.

    The story of the eight year old girl breaks my heart. No one should be treated like this, but especially not a young child! Us women need to stick together, and we should all try to help.

  2. Thank you for keeping this incredibly important issue in the spotlight. I realize this may sound trite, because after all, what can a ribbon do?…but I find myself thinking it would have been nice for presenters and nominees at the Oscars to wear a ribbon or signifier of some sort that could help spread awareness of this issue to millions around the world. I will check out the V-Day site.

  3. Saw 33 Variations this afternoon…we’re big theater goers and don’t say this too often….it was incredible…from beginning to end!!! I loved it!! Thank you!

  4. Jane, thank you for informing us about this situation in the Congo — breaks my heart — and especially added on to seeing Slumdog Millionaire yesterday. I so enjoy your blog — how open you are about just the blessings of “every day life.” Thank you for taking the time — I hope to get to New York to see your play — an admirer from the Hill Country of Texas — Martha

  5. Jane, thank you for informing us about the situation in the Congo — breaks my heart — and especially after seeing Slumdog Millionaire. I so enjoy your blog — you are so good at “openness” and every day life and reminding us of blessings and struggles that come along with it. From an admirer in the Hill Country of Texas — Martha

  6. Herbert rocks.

    Actually, I heart as it is one of the last bastions of great newspaper journalism. I can’t leave out Jim Lehrer, Mark Sheilds, and Bill Moyers while talking about great journalism.


  7. Just a quick note ….hope you got my e mail yesterday. Referencing our meeting in the elevator a while back as you exited your beauticians at 38 East 57th etc

    I was note sure how this whole thing worked on your blog here and certainly understand that you cannot answer every reply here. Again, good luck. I look forward to sharing the experience of your new show with my sister …. 5 yrs older than me and same age as you. I have always thought you were so great,… and when I saw you in the elevator that day … was very exciting for me. Thank you Robert

  8. Hi Jane
    I just found out that you have a blog.
    I visit Rosie’s blog nearly everyday.

    I have a 1978 art magazine that featured your Dad’s work.
    I’ve oftened wondered if you would like to have it.
    I’d be happy to mail.

  9. The June/July 2008 National Geographic had a cover story on the apes of the congo. The pictures told such a different story. The “chairman” of the republic using these apes as an excuse for indimidation and keeping firewood thusly clean drinking water from refugees.

  10. *sigh* This is one of thee most disturbing articles I have ever read. I am beyond ready for the day when females of all ages, in every continent, are no longer being assaulted.

    I really admire Eve for everything she’s done in helping women all over the world. I saw The Vagina Monologues when I was 16 and then again when I was 23, and it’s probably the most powerful piece of work I’ve ever seen concerning the female species.

    Thanks for sharing this article with us. I await the day violence against women comes to an end.

  11. P.S.
    Have fun on The View. I have it taped since my mother doesn’t think catching Jane Fonda on The View is a good excuse to stay home from school. I thought it was a valid reason! Mothers! Anyway, will watch when I get home!!


  12. Presently those responsible for the “systemmatic terroristic rape” used in the Congo as a means to break the will of the people are charged and awaiting trial by the ICC. What can be done for the victims I believe would be a look at the nature of the crimes as a whole, which would include the child soldiers.The problem can not be solved by the individual address. The problem is one that effects the mass of the population and the soulution would be found by addressing the masses. By doing so in the manor Bukeni Waruzi adressed the child soldier, would elevate the level of pressure upon Kabila.If it was done in a way that publically removed the mass psycholgical stigma, the individual victim would be well served. It is simply impossible to address each individual instance. As the new head of the AU Gaddafi no doubt should be approached on this matter and he should see it as an opprotunity for inclusiveness instead of indifference ,that is where the dollar lies and each penny a feather.This is to any belief, the mark of the beast.

  13. Thank you for helping to raise awareness about the atrocities in the Congo. As the Director of a domestic violence/sexual assault center in Florida, I know thatraising awareness is not enough – we must stand together and demand that violence against women and girls throughout the world ends now. What is being done to women and children can no longer be tolerated and world leaders must also take a stand. Women everywhere should demand that they do so immediately. Eve Ensler is a magnificent example of courage and activism that we all must embrace and continue.

  14. Dear Ms. Fonda–I am very moved and heartbroken by the situation in the Congo–my daughter Kate is responsible for enlightening our whole family to this, and other atrocities in that area. She has had this on her heart, mind and in her prayers since she was 16 years old. Now, at 19, she is actually OVER there! She is currently in Uganda attending University for a few months, and will then be heading to Northern Uganda to work with the LRA war widows and orphans..our daughter is only 19 years old, but is so strongly led by God to serve Him there, and is in the process of trying shed light on the genocide and horror that those dear people experience every single day. She would like to ultimately work with Invisible Children Organization, but I am going to send her the info on V-Day. Our hearts are a little bit in our throats as our sweet girl puts herself on the line to serve in this way, but it takes kids just like her–a new generation of INTOLERANT young people–to change the world! INTOLERANT of genocide..rape..abductions of children into rebel armies..starvation..mutilation–things that we can only imagine in our nightmares. Jane, I thank you for your blog–your honestly–your own intolerance of the horrors of war. We must use our voice! Our girl was born using hers! We pray that this can be an inspiration to many to do all that they can do for those in need. God bless you, dear sister…

  15. Thank you so much simply for doing what you can by making an effort, drawing the attention, trying to communicate. It is I think your greatest attribute, and so many women should be thankful, whether they realize it or not .

  16. It’s hard to believe this is happening in 2009.

    Thank you for making me aware of this organization.

  17. My understanding of what is occurring in the Congo is the collusion of the government with guerilla militia using strategies as rape as a way of subduing resistance to mining of minerals that feeds the west’s insatiable hunger for minerals used in the manufacture of commodoties such as computers

    As usual the theatre of war played out in the bodies of women.

  18. Jane I think you’re in New York, and I’m in Toronto, so good night to us 🙂

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