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The following program was recorded on September 17, 2007. Please note that this podcast contains graphic descriptions that some readers might find disturbing.
Michele Kort: This is Michelle Kort, senior editor of Ms. Magazine, and I'm delighted to be speaking with Eve Ensler today. Eve is the famed author of The Vagina Monologues, and head of the V-Day organization.
With her today is Christine Schuler Deschryver from Bukavu in the Congo, who is an activist against the sexual violence. We'll be talking about that today -- specifically, we'll be talking about how sexual violence has led to an epidemic of fistula in women who have been raped.
Our talk today is inspired by the broadcast of the film Lumo on POV The film was directed by Bent-Jorgen Perlmutt and Nelson Walker III.
Eve, could you explain what a fistula is?
Eve Ensler: Well, before I do that, I'd really like to talk a little bit about the context of rape and how it happens, because I can't really talk about fistula without doing that.
So what I'd like to say, having just been in the Congo in May, and having just done a big report for Glamour magazine that came out in August, is that the situation of women in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC, or the Congo) is about the worst situation I've seen of women anywhere in the world. The kind of atrocities that are being committed on women's bodies is nothing short of femicide. It is an all-out, systematic pattern of destruction toward the female species.
I witnessed and heard stories of sexual torture, gang rapes, massive raping, guns up women's vaginas, sticks up women's vaginas, girls as young as 6 years old being gang-raped and destroyed.
The kind of fistula that people are seeing and addressing in the Congo, which comes from this kind of trauma, is usually when a woman has been raped so badly that there has been a hole punctured either between her vaginal wall and her bladder, or between her vaginal wall and her rectum. In both of those situations, what happens is that this terrible hole is created inside her. I actually sat in on a fistula operation and was, unfortunately, able to see this hole inside a woman, and it's like a hole inside her being, inside her soul, where everything falls out.
After a woman has a fistula, she's no longer able to hold her pee or her feces, and so things just fall out of her, which, as you can imagine, destroys a woman's life. She then begins to smell. She is exiled from the community. She begins to hate herself. There's incredible humiliation and shame and all kinds of terrible things associated with that.
It was particularly disturbing to see fistula in little girls, because they were incontinent, and boys were really cruel to them, and communities of children were very cruel to them.
Kort: Christine, you work at the center in Bukavu, Congo that treates women who have this condition?
Christine Schuler Deschryver: Yes, I work in the center in Bukavu, especially in going there, identifying the victims and listening to them. I also try to find some help for them through international lobbying. I'm in Bukavu at least three times a week and every weekend with these women.
Kort: Hopefully, the women can be physically healed. A lot of them sometimes have more than one operation to try to heal them. But what about healing the violence that's going on in that part of the world?
Ensler: One of the things that we are doing with the participation of DOCS in Goma (Editor's note: now known as HEAL Africa), an organization in Bukavu, and organizations all over the eastern DRC is V-Day. UNICEF and the U.N. Action to Stop Rape has launched a national and international campaign to stop the raping of our greatest resources and to empower the women and girls of Congo. You can find out more about that campaign on vday.org/congo. What we're asking is for people to write letters to President Kabila to demand justice and protection for the women of eastern Congo, and for people to send in funds to support these efforts.
There's now a coalition of women's groups in eastern Congo, where this film was shot, and DOCS is one of them. The coalition has agreed that the first facility they are going to build is something called the City of Joy in Bukavu, which will be a center and a place for women who have been survivors, and who have no place to go. These women will be supported to become the next leaders of the Congo.
Kort: In the documentary, there was a very telling moment where someone said, "We support you" as the women were marching against the violence. But they also said, "But you shouldn't dress in revealing ways." So obviously there's still a lot of education that needs to go on there. Would you agree that women are still being blamed for the violence against them?
Schuler Deschryver: Yes, of course. I think that the women feel they are still being blamed. Rape is still taboo in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and the women only talk about rape and go to the hospitals when they don't have a choice anymore. Otherwise, they don't talk about it because they are blamed for it.
Ensler: The situation for women in the Congo before the war started was terrible anyway. Women had very few rights. They are not perceived as equal citizens. In some cases, they had less status and less respect than gorillas, in my opinion.
I think what this femicide and these atrocities have done is to have, bizarrely, normalized rape. So now it's not just the militias, the Interahamwe, the Congolese army and the factions that are raping the women; now it's becoming normalized. Domestic rape and domestic battery has wildly increased in families.
Because there has been no justice, because so few perpetrators have been held accountable for the crimes that they're committing, it's becoming as Christine said to me when we were there, like a country sport: rape.
It's the worst thing I've ever seen in the world, and if the world does not pay attention to this and if the international community does not put pressure on the president and people in that country to start respecting the women and protecting the women, we are going to see deaths like we have never seen. I can't even imagine the number of deaths that could occur because of the rise of AIDS, and the explosion of AIDS that's going to occur in the next 10 years.
Schuler Deschryver: We are talking about one of the worst humanitarian disasters in this world after the Second World War. Two years ago, the International Rescue Committee reported that more than 4 million people have died in the DRC during the conflict. Now we are waiting for the new report, and it will say, maybe, that 6 or 7 million people have died.
Today, in the eastern part of Congo, there are more than 200,000 victims of rape. In Bukavu we have victims ranging in age from 10-month-old babies to 87-year-old women. I think that the word Ms. Ensler used -- femicide -- is the right word to describe what is going on in the eastern part of Congo. And the world should wake up and do something before it's too late, because maybe one day, we'll talk about women in Congo like a species that is in the process of disappearing.
Kort: Eve, can you tell us about the United Nations, the International Violence Against Women Act and what that might do?
Ensler: One of the things that's really frightening in the Congo is that there's no law that's supporting women or providing justice. The United Nations, in my opinion, is just simply not doing enough. I spoke at the Security Council a few months ago, and I now know that there's been a call by Steven Lewis to have a special initiative to end the sexual violence in eastern Congo. I think supporting that initiative would be a very good idea. I think getting the Security Council to make any violence against women in eastern Congo a central issue of their work would be a very good idea. And I think demanding that the U.N. get more peacekeepers and get more security forces in the region would be a very good idea.
Kort: What has the U.S. role been up to this point? Has the U.S. said anything about Congo?
Ensler: I don't really think so. It's important to remember that the United States is allies with Uganda and Rwanda. And in Rwanda, during the genocide in the 1990s, the Interahamwe, who are a Hutu militia, were killing minority Tutsis. The generous Congolese people allowed the Rwandan refugees to come over the border, and with them came the Interahamwe.
The Interahamwe is one of the primary militias that has been murdering and committing these atrocities. If the U.S. government were to put pressure on Rwanda and Uganda and say, "We are not going to support you unless you get the Interahamwe out of the Congo and work with the Interahamwe to stop these atrocities," you bet it would have an influence.
Kort: Who is financing the Interahamwe?
Schuler Deschryver: We don't know who exactly is financing them. The Congo is one of the richest countries of the world -- in the eastern part of Congo there is a mineral called tantalum that is used in cell phones and computers and Playstations®. So the Interahamwe are working with some people -- we don't know who -- to export tantalum out of the Congo in exchange for money and guns.
Kort: It sounds like some action should be taken against the corporations who use tantalum.
Ensler: Absolutely. I think it's really important, and one of the things we're trying to do in this campaign is to begin identifying the multinational corporations that are benefiting from these resources. Ultimately, these corporations are exchanging guns with the Interahamwe, who protect and provide these natural resources for them. We want to start putting pressure on the multinationals so that they stop doing business with genocidists.
Kort: It sounds like a good movement that people can focus their attentions on.
Ensler: If they stay tuned to the campaign, I know that it will be an aspect of the campaign that emerges.
Kort: Christine, how do the women in the Congo keep their spirits up with all this going on?
Schuler Deschryver: I don't know. I think most of them believe in God. So all the strength they have may come from God.
When you go to the hospital, you see all the women injured and totally destroyed, but they can still dance, they can still sing, they can still smile, even if their eyes look sad. Their spirits have not been killed, and that gives them the strength to continue. These women are survivors, they will become leaders and they will change the Congo.
Ensler: Some of the most resilient, incredible women I have ever met in the world are Congolese women. You hear these horrible stories come out of their mouths, stories that you can't even repeat to people, and after the telling of the story, their energy is renewed.
Sometimes their resources are so slim that just receiving a bottle of soda is such a gift that they're hopeful for hours. So I think if we could get resources and support to the women of the Congo, we could definitely help begin to turn their lives around.
Kort: What's the best way for people to do that?
Ensler: Right now, it's to give to the V-Day UNICEF campaign at vday.org/congo. The money goes to support a coalition made out of many different groups. POV's Lumo focuses on a woman who was at DOCS in Goma, and DOCS is part of this coalition, so that money will get to them as well.
We're selling bags that are made by women in that particular center, as well as bags that are made by women in Bukavu and Bunia. If you donate to our campaign or buy the bags, the money will get directed towards them.
Kort: Eve, how did you get from The Vagina Monologues to all this work against violence against women? Was it a natural path?
Ensler: It was. When I toured initially with the show, so many women would line up to talk to me. At the beginning, I thought, "Well, they'll be telling me about their wonderful sex lives and their great orgasms." In fact, what women lined up to tell me was how they'd been beaten or gang-raped or raped or endured incest. I was going to stop doing the show, because I felt so immoral just listening to stories and doing nothing.
In 1998, which is almost 10 years ago, we decided we would do one performance of The Vagina Monologues to raise money for local groups in New York, and that was the first V-Day: V-Day stands for Vagina Day, Valentine's Day and Victory over Violence Day.
That performance launched this movement, which in 10 years has spread to 119 countries. We've raised $50 million by the work of grassroots women doing productions of the play in communities all over the planet.
You see how urgent it is and how fast it's spread, because one out of three women in this world will be beaten or raped in her lifetime. So The Vagina Monologues, in talking about the vagina and opening up the stories of the vagina, opened up the stories of truly great experiences and love and sexuality and pleasure, but it also opened up a box of horror.
Kort: Are there other areas of the world that we're overlooking right now that are areas of tremendous violence against women? We know about Darfur. We know now more and more about the Congo. Are there other areas that we're overlooking?
Ensler: Our primary focus right now is the Congo, which I would say needs the most attention of any place I've been in the world, including Darfur. What's going on in Darfur is atrocious, but if you look at it in terms of numbers, you can't even compare what's happening in the Congo to anywhere else in the world right now. We're talking about 4 million people who have died in the DRC in the last 10 years.
I was in Haiti this spring, and I think what's going on in terms of rape and violence in Haiti is really quite awful. I think the situation for women in Afghanistan is absolutely being turned to what it used to be; it's going back to the way it was under the Northern Alliance and the Taliban: The rapes are beginning again, women are being excluded from teaching and from jobs again, and there is the selling of women again.
We also need to look at sex trafficking, which is rising wherever there is poverty, wherever there are storms, wherever there are terrible situations. We know that women who are on the front line of disaster are the first to go.
We have to make violence against women a central issue in every aspect, in the United Nations, in foundations, in national and local governments. We have to stop seeing it as something we get to later, when it is the single most important issue anybody can be thinking about.
If you rape a woman, you rape life. You destroy her parenting ability. You destroy her ability to work and think and love and nurture and care and provide. Yet we still keep treating it as the thing we're going to get to later.
Kort: When I was watching Lumo, I was struck by how beautiful the Congo looked. And it's very painful to think that here is this beautiful country, very green with mountains and rolling hills, and all this pain is hidden amongst all this beauty. Is that how you feel about it, Christine? How does the Congo of your childhood compare to the Congo of today?
Schuler Deschryver: Every time I talk about my Congo, my province, I'm thinking about hell in paradise. Ten years ago they turned the country into hell. But the Congo is one of the most beautiful places on this earth. We have everything -- vegetables in your garden, the best climate all year long. The only thing we don't have is peace.
Kort: Why should that always be the thing that's so far away?
Schuler Deschryver: I don't know. That's a good question. We have become beggars of peace in the Congo. We are not asking for anything else -- just peace, and the right to live for women. We hope that the Congo will become paradise again, especially for women and children.
Listen to the full audio of this program: Download MP3 (6.7 MB)
» Ms. Magazine: "Not Women Anymore." The Congo's rape survivors face pain, shame and AIDS
An article from the spring 2005 issue of Ms. Magazine details the horrors of rape in the Congo and how the underfunded U.N. mission is failing the country's women.
» V-Day: Congo
Founded by Eve Ensler, V-Day is a global movement to stop violence against women and girls. V-Day and UNICEF have teamed up on a global campaign called Stop Raping Our Greatest Resource: Power to Women in the DRC.
» UNIFEM: Say NO to Violence Against Women
The campaign invites people to sign their names in an online book to influence decision-makers around the world to prioritize ending violence against women in their policies.
» International Rescue Committee: Stop Violence Against Women and Girls
The global humanitarian organization International Rescue Committee has set up a petition urging the U.S. Congress to take action to stop violence against women and girls.
Eve Ensler is the award-winning author of The Vagina Monologues and the founder of the global movement V-Day. She has devoted her life to stopping violence, envisioning a planet in which women and girls will be free to thrive, rather than merely survive. Her plays include The Good Body, Necessary Targets and Conviction. She also executived-produced the documentary film "What I Want My Words To Do To You," which aired on POV in 2003.
1. "Sexual Violence and Armed Conflict In the DRC: Background," VDay.org.
2. "Fighting Ongoing in Eastern Congo," The Guardian, September 4, 2007.