Eve Ensler can’t find the right words to describe what she’s seen and heard.
She talks about a woman being gang-raped by 15 soldiers. Some violated with sticks and knives. Cannibalism. She has returned from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where thousands of women and girls have been systematically raped during a 10-year war that some say has cost more lives than any other war since World War II.
“It’s ‘femicide,’” Ensler says, using another word to describe the treatment of Congolese women. “It’s the systematic destruction of women. It’s an economic war fought on the bodies of women. It’s the destruction of the Congolese people and life itself.
Ensler and others are trying to stop the gruesome attacks against women by launching a series of campaigns that pivot on what Ensler says is a debatable premise—people will care what happens to dark-skinned Africans.
The world’s reaction has been muted so far and Ensler, best-known as the playwright of “The Vagina Monologues,” says she knows why.
“A lot of it is flat-out racism,” she says. “When we see conflicts that involve white people, the world responds faster. Bosnia is a perfect example.”
Other Congo activists say the world hasn’t acted because they don’t know. People will respond once they hear the terrible stories, says Candice Knezevic, the “RAISE Hope for Congo” campaign manager for the Enough project, a group founded to end genocide and crimes against humanity.
Congo has long, bloody history
There seems to be so much to know. The history of Congo is as tangled and bloody as the complex war that engulfs it today.
Belguim ruled Congo from 1885 until it gained its independence in 1960. According to the CIA World Factbook, Congo has long been “marred by political and social instability.”
The struggle for control of Congo’s rich natural resources—the CIA Factbook says it is “endowed with vast potential wealth” in diamonds, gold and cobalt—has fueled much of the violence today, activists say.
Since 1998, various armed factions—tribal, rebel and militia—have fought for control of the country and its resources. UNICEF says the war has cost more lives than any other war since World War II.
Rape has become a primary weapon in that war, says Geoffrey Keele, a UNICEF spokesman. Keele says rape is designed to destroy the Congolese community. Husbands, families and villages often shun rape victims. A weak and divided community is easier to conquer.
“Rape is designed not just to injure and dehumanize the women but impact their families and communities,” Keele says.
Turning ‘pain into power’
They are women like Lumo Furaha who recently told V-Day why she decided to talk publicly about the time scores of armed men raped her repeatedly.
“They wanted to destroy me; destroy my body and kill my spirit,” she recalled. “I am speaking out because I don’t want any child of the next generation to have to live through what I have lived through.”
Ensler says she saw a frightening example of that ripple effect during her last trip to Congo. She was in a hospital when nurses brought in a 3-year-old girl who had been raped—by two 10-year-old boys.