Press Conference on Five-City 'Turning Pain to Power' Tour Aimed at Battling Sexual Violence in Democratic Republic of the Congo

11 February 2009

Press Conference on Five-City 'Turning Pain to Power' Tour Aimed at Battling Sexual Violence in Democratic Republic of the Congo

11 February 2009
Press Conference
Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York




Ann Veneman, Executive Director of the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), met correspondents at a Headquarters press conference this afternoon to discuss a five-city tour in the United States to promote a campaign to battle sexual violence in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where hundreds of thousands of women and girls were estimated to have been raped after a decade of war. 

Ms. Veneman will join together with two activists to conduct the promotional tour -- Denis Mukwege, Director and founder of Panzi General Referral Hospital, in the Congolese town of Bukavu, South Kivu, which specializes in handling victims of sexual abuse, and playwright Eve Ensler, creator of the popular play The Vagina Monologues.  Ms. Ensler also founded V-Day, a movement focused on stopping violence against women and girls.

Ms. Veneman said the campaign was developed jointly by UNICEF and V-Day and had been running since November 2007.  Called “Stop Raping Our Greatest Resource:  Power to Women and Girls of the DRC”, the programme had successfully trained around 200 Congolese activists -- both men and women -- to lead campaigns in their own communities, and had spawned hundreds of women’s discussion groups to help develop local strategies to eliminate sexual violence.

Now, the campaign will be taken to five United States cities -- New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Atlanta and Washington, D.C. -- to expose the devastating impact of rape on Congolese women.  Dubbed the “Turning Pain to Power Tour”, it will highlight the horrors encountered in the Congo and, as Ms. Ensler told reporters, “with the hope to wake up America”.

Explaining the meaning behind the name “V-Day”, Ms. Ensler said that, when the movement first began, activists would coalesce on 14 February or Valentine’s Day to highlight atrocities faced by women in a particular area of the world, such as Iraq or Afghanistan.  But the name also signified many other things -- including “Vagina Day” and “Victory-against-violence Day”.  This year, around 4,000 V-Day events were expected to be held in 14,000 places, to be focused on the plight of women in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.  There would also be 600 teach-ins. 

“Violence against women is not a particular African thing or Congolese thing.  It’s a worldwide epidemic,” stressed Ms. Ensler, who as part of her work on women’s empowerment had travelled to as many as 60 countries in the past 10 years.  Often, she said, she went to places that she called “the rape mines of the world”. 

Explaining why the V-Day movement was focusing on the Congo this year, Ms. Ensler said she had been moved by stories from rape victims at Panzi Hospital, which she visited several times within the last two years.  She was also struck by the international community’s indifference towards the plight of women in that country, which she had found “atrocious” and “horrendous”.  As many as 300,000 women had been raped in the region within the past 10 to 12 years.  In some cases, women would drag themselves to the hospital, some after being left for dead in the forest.

“What I have seen and heard and experienced in eastern Congo is without a doubt the worst situation of violence towards women in the world,” she added.  “If we allow it to continue -- as humanity, as a species -- we will see the spread of it”.

“When you look at the situation in the Congo, where we are seeing something that is essentially femicide, it’s a systematic destruction of the women of the Congo,” she added.  “We are talking of life itself perishing in the Congo if we don’t do something about it.” 

Mr. Mukwege, who won the United Nations Prize in the Field of Human Rights for 2008, said the campaign was doing all it could to draw attention to the issue, especially from those in power.  But, he also acknowledged the difficulties that campaigners faced.

“Sometimes it seems that ears are closed,” he said, speaking through an interpreter.  “We’ve been wondering, because these are women, do we need men to start being killed so that other men will react?”

When asked to explain why he thought violence against women was so persistent in the Congo, Mr. Mukwege explained that armed groups were using sexual violence as a means to intimidate women and forcing them and their families to flee.  Once the terrorized population were successfully dispersed, the militants were able to gain control of their land, which was abundant in gold, cassiterite and coltan.  Often, the aggressors act with total impunity because there were no international tribunals to try them for their crimes.

“We all benefit from the resources of the Congo, in the West,” Ms. Ensler went on.  “We have blood on our hands, essentially.  If we are not aware of how we reap and plunder and take the resources and the consequences of that on the bodies of women, then we are negligent.”  The campaign was aimed, partly, to enlighten the American public of such occurrences and to encourage them to place pressure on elected officials to influence events in Congo, so that the war over natural resources would end.

Asked whether he advocated greater reliance on United Nations peacekeepers to manage the violence, Mr. Mukwege said the Organization’s soldiers played an important role, but they could not be expected to “do everything”.  He called for the international community to impress upon the Government in Kinshasa to put together an army that could protect the Congolese people, and to rid itself of the current army, which he believed was composed of “former rapists”.

As for the campaign itself, Ms. Ensler said that, lately, it had emboldened women to speak out about their ordeals.  In September 2007, 10 women each in two towns -- Goma and Bukavu -- offered public testimonies of their ordeals.  Those had been attended by hundreds of people, including high-ranking Government officials.  The public testimonials were significant because, according to both Ms. Ensler and Mr. Mukwege, victims typically kept their rapes a secret. 

Mr. Mukwege said it was common for women not to come forward, unless the damage was so great that they became ill from it.  If the assault was particularly violent, he said, some women came away with damage to their bladders, vaginas and rectums.

As part of the campaign, V-Day also hoped to open a centre in Bukavu, a city lying in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of the Congo and bordering Rwanda, where survivors could receive skills training to encourage their economic independence.  Called “City of Joy”, the centre was expected to be run by a local chapter of V-Day.

* *** *

For information media • not an official record
For information media. Not an official record.