Charlize Theron, new United Nations Messenger of Peace, at UN Headquarters in New York City, addressing a press conference on violence against women and girls, on 17 November 2008. Photo Credit: UN Photo/Evan Schneider.
Academy Award-winning actress Charlize Theron (South Africa/U.S.A.) has been designated as a Messenger of Peace with a special focus on eliminating violence against women. An activist as well as an acclaimed actress, she founded The Charlize Theron Africa Outreach Project, in partnership with the Entertainment Industry Foundation (EIF), to create a safer, healthier and better life for impoverished children and their families in South Africa, especially those suffering from HIV/AIDS. As its first mission in 2007, the Project collaborated with Oprah’s Angel Network to create a mobile health and computer unit designed to improve the health and social development of youth in Umkhanyakude District. Approximately 5,000 students in this remote community now have access to counseling and testing for HIV and other health issues, and receive computer training and health education, with a special focus on preventing HIV. Ms. Theron also filmed a series of public service announcements in support of the Cape Town Rape Crisis Center, urging no tolerance for rape or domestic violence.
Message of Solidarity with the people of Japan
Charlize Theron joined Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and a number of other United Nations Messengers of Peace and Goodwill Ambassadors in recording video messages of solidarity with the people of Japan in the wake of the 11 March earthquake and tsunami. The messages were played to affected populations via national Japanese broadcast partners, online partners, UNICs and the UN's social media channels.
Hope in the City of Joy
Photo by Paula Allen for V-Day
In 2009, I visited the Democratic Republic of Congo for the first time and I remember feeling utterly overwhelmed. It was a trip that really opened my eyes or, should I say, slapped me in the face with the realities of the country. I had heard so much about the violence, particularly against women, but nothing had prepared me. I listened to stories from women and girls about extreme horrors inflicted on them. I learned how families and villages have been torn apart through a plague of terror using sexual violence as a tool of destruction. It was a kind of devastation that I had never seen before.
I left the country questioning what we could do, when the organization V-Day offered a ray of hope with the City of Joy. The City of Joy is a place where survivors of sexual violence can go to heal physically and emotionally, and gain skills and leadership training through programming. The knowledge they gain here will allow them to return to their homes with tools to help rebuild their lives. The concept seemed innovative and I was particularly drawn to the fact that it was thought up completely by the women of the DRC themselves. Who better to decide how to address their real needs?
In February, I had the opportunity to go back to the DRC for the City of Joy opening. A group of us, a V-Day delegation, came together from various parts of the world to travel to Bukavu. In all honesty, part of me was scared. Scared to return and open myself up to the all the emotions and heartache of this country, but it was also fear that drove me back. How can we not return when the situation there is so dire? How dare I let my fear even for a moment make me think twice, when these people live with this fear everyday? So I went and, along with the rest of the delegation, arrived with all the love and hope I could possibly bring. We showed up not only to celebrate something joyful in the midst of all this chaos -- the opening of the City of Joy -- but also to remind the women of Bukavu that they are not forgotten.
The opening celebration was absolutely incredible. There were hundreds of women and community members dancing, speaking out, and there was so much gratitude and hope. And yet amid the happiness there was still the reality of the situation around us. One Congolese woman got up and spoke and I found her particularly brave and inspiring. She said, "If this was happening in your country it would have ended a long time ago." She is right. Never would we turn our backs on people in the developed world in the way that the world turns its back on the DRC. V-Day founder Eve Ensler said something amazing that I can't quote directly, but it was to the effect of "Congo is the heart of Africa and Africa is the heart of the world. And what affects the heart affects all of us". This country is bleeding to death and it's up to us to step in and help put an end to this. There is no excuse good enough to allow such crimes against humanity to continue.
In some ways the work we do in the DRC seems like a tiny drop in a big bucket of violence. At the same time I saw and felt the incredible potential that day. These women are capable of so much. A small example is in the construction of the City of Joy. V-Day chose to use a mostly female construction team, likely a first in the history of the DRC. Many doubted their capabilities, but the women welcomed and rose to the challenge. The construction is outstanding and these women, now beginning to understand their own potential, have decided to create their own construction business. V-Day was inspired by this and gave the women a grant to get their business off the ground.
The City of Joy has the capacity to change and inspire groups of women. These women can change their communities. And these communities can change the province and the country. I believe it is in this way that the message of turning pain to power can spread like an epidemic. Just as violence and terror spread throughout the country, why can there not be an epidemic of empowerment and peace?
United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon once said, "Investing in women is not only the right thing to do. It is the smart thing to do.
"I am deeply convinced that, in women, the world has at its disposal the most significant and yet largely untapped potential for development and peace. Gender equality is not only a goal in itself, but a prerequisite for reaching all the other international development goals, including the Millennium Development Goals."
Let us hope the City of Joy will be the place where attitudes may be changed about the value of women and where the movement of equality in the DRC starts, so that we may someday see an end to the violence and a better quality of life for all.
At What Point Does One Lose One's Humanity?
By Charlize Theron
Charlize Theron in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
I have been incredibly blessed in my life to be able to travel. Seeing the world and its diversity first hand has been the greatest teacher, and never have I learned a more difficult lesson then when I visited the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) in 2009. The DRC, bordered by nine different countries, is home to over 200 ethnic groups, making it literally the heart of Africa. This country is in a state of emergency. Various militias and complicated politics all play a part in the devastation of the land and the population, but no one is suffering more than the women and young girls. Hundreds of thousands of women and girls have been beaten, tortured and raped—atrocities beyond anything that I have ever heard of or could imagine.
During my visit to the DRC, I visited Panzi Hospital in Bukavu, a city on the eastern border that is known for being one of the hardest hit by this plague of sexual violence. The hospital is one of the only safe havens for victims, and the principal doctor, Dr. Mukwege, is one of the people closest to being a saint that I have ever met. Beyond standard medical and psychological treatments for victims, the hospital performs surgical repairs for women who suffer from fistulas in their vagina or rectum. The surgery is literally a miracle for these women and girls who could otherwise be permanently incontinent, as well as suffer from chronic infections. The fistulas that the hospital treats are normally the result of not simply violent or numerous rapes, but more commonly from a deliberate infliction of damage to the genitalia, from sharp objects, knives or gun shots. The idea behind this brutality is to completely humiliate and breakdown families, as well as entire communities—a violence which seems to know no limits.
After such abuse, bodies and minds will never be the same. It is moments like these when I question how is it possible for one human to commit such an act against another, and at what point does one lose one’s humanity? I found myself then wondering how can you ever expect these women to trust again, especially when they return to their families only to be shunned and cast out? Where are they to turn? Even if their physical wounds are able to heal, they become debilitated without the support of a family or a community and without skills or resources so many women have absolutely no means to support themselves. At times the problem seems overwhelming—too large to fix.
At the headquarters of the United Nations Organization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, I had the opportunity to meet with a group of women who work with non-governmental organizations in Bukavu. Listening to these women broke my heart. One woman made the statement that they want to fight—they want change and hope, but have no idea who to turn to anymore. They felt that they could trust no one, they felt alone and helpless. I understood what they meant. Just listening to them talk about their situation, it was hard not to feel as she did, helpless.
For a problem so big and so complicated, where do you begin? What I have found and what I believe is that you begin somewhere, anywhere, but you must begin. You must act. As you read this, consider your humanity. Consider for one moment if you or your sister, your mother or your daughter lived in such a dire situation—then act. There are overarching problems that our generation may not ever be able to change, but there are also women suffering here and now. These women need us and we have the capacity to change their lives.
In Bukavu, I saw in action the change that can be made when I met Christine Schuler Deschryver and learned about her work with V-Day.
V-Day defines itself as a global movement to end violence against women and girls. They work around the world building support, speaking out, educating, collaborating with local organizations and inspiring men and women to stop the violence. Christine has devoted her life to helping the women and girls of the DRC, and when we met, she and the V-Day team were hard at work creating the City of Joy project in Bukavu. The City of Joy is a unique facility for survivors of sexual violence. It will support these women by helping them heal, and provide them with opportunities to develop their self-sustainability and leadership through programmes such as group therapy, dance, sexual education, self-defence, and economic empowerment. Seeing the land where this project would be built, and hearing the plans, I knew that this is an act that will make a difference.
I urge you to please educate yourself about the situation of women in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and support the work of the Panzi Hospital and V-Day. I can vouch for these organizations, and promise your support will be nothing short of life saving.
What does it mean if there is one more hospital bed that can comfort a woman who has just dragged herself miles to reach aid? What does it mean to the 13 year-old who does not get raped? What does it mean when she can trust a man and raise a child to believe that people—both men and women—can be good?