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“There is a Women’s Spring Beginning”: Playwright Eve Ensler and Congolese Activist Christine Schuler Deschryver on Gender Violence in Congo

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A newly published study in the American Journal of Public Health estimates more than two million women have been raped in the Democratic Republic of Congo since 2006. But women’s advocates say there is also positive news coming from the DRC. The group V-Day, a global movement to stop all forms of gender-based violence, recently held the opening ceremony for the City of Joy, a groundbreaking new community that will be run by women survivors of gender violence in the Congo. We speak with V-Day founder, Eve Ensler, the bestselling author and playwright behind The Vagina Monologues, about gender violence in DRC. We are also joined Christine Schuler Deschryver, director of V-Day Congo and the City of Joy, about the growing number of rape prosecutions in DRC. “The Congolese women are taking their power, because we told them that they don’t have to be ashamed for these rapes. The ones who are doing it have to be ashamed,” says Schuler Deschryver. We also ask Ensler about the growing rate of violence against women in Haiti and get her reaction to the sexual assault charges filed against former International Monetary Fund director, Dominique Strauss-Kahn. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: A newly published study estimates more than two million women have been raped in the Democratic Republic of Congo, a figure that translates to some 1,100 women every day, a rate of 48 per hour. The findings were based on a survey of 3,400 women conducted in 2007. The study was published in the American Journal of Public Health. The study says at least 400,000 women were raped in the DRC over that 12-month period from 2006 to 2007. It also suggests the problem of sexual assault is not confined to eastern Congo, but pervasive throughout the Democratic Republic of Congo. The severity of the rape epidemic in the DRC was underscored last summer when between 300 to 500 women, girls, babies were raped by Rwandan and Congolese rebels in the Walikale region over the course of two months.

A turning point may have been reached earlier this year, though, with the convictions of more than a dozen officers and soldiers for their involvement in mass rape. In March, a United Nations panel called for the compensation of Congolese victims of sexual violence through a special reparations fund. The panel was headed by the U.N. Human Rights Deputy High Commissioner Kyung-wha Kang.

KYUNG-WHA KANG: We’ve heard so much about this challenge of mass rapes in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. But all throughout, what was missing was the voice of the victims. The international community, concerned people, go in, listen to their horrendous stories, but then what? What has become of their lives since? It’s not simple assistance. It’s reparations, which is a duty on the part of government to help victims of crime recover as much as they can and to restore them to the state before the crimes have happened.

AMY GOODMAN: That was U.N. Human Rights Deputy High Commissioner Kyung-wha Kang.

Well, earlier this year, the group V-Day, a global movement to stop all forms of gender-based violence, held the opening ceremony for the City of Joy, a groundbreaking new community for women survivors of gender violence in the Congo. Created from their vision, Congolese women will run, operate and direct City of Joy themselves. This is V-Day founder Eve Ensler speaking at the opening ceremony for the City of Joy.

EVE ENSLER: The women of Congo are the center of my heart. They’re in the heart of the world, the heart of Africa. If you rape the center of the world, if you exploit the center of the world, you destroy the heart of the world! Today, we are about taking back the heart. Jambo Mamas, you are the strongest women. And I promise you, City of Joy will be the place where the women of Congo turn their pain to power.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Eve Ensler of V-Day, speaking at the opening ceremonies for the City of Joy in Bukavu.

In addition to founding V-Day, Eve Ensler is the bestselling author and playwright behind The Vagina Monologues. Her latest book is a collection of fictional monologues and stories inspired by girls. It’s called I Am an Emotional Creature: The Secret Life of Girls Around the World.

We are joined by Eve Ensler here in our studio, as well as her colleague, Christine Schuler Deschryver of V-Day Congo. She is the director of V-Day Congo and of the City of Joy. Christine has devoted her life to women’s issues in the Democratic Republic of Congo after witnessing the rape and murder of her best friend and the death of an infant in 2000.

V-Day founder and artistic director Eve Ensler has also — is also being awarded the 2011 Isabelle Stevenson Tony Award for her commitment to humanitarian and charitable efforts around her V-Day organizing around the world.

We welcome you both back to Democracy Now!

EVE ENSLER: Thanks, Amy.


AMY GOODMAN: Well, Eve, it’s also wonderful to have you back on Democracy Now! and to see you in such remarkable health.

EVE ENSLER: Thank you. Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: You are a survivor in so many ways, as you struggle with and seem to have defeated your cancer.

EVE ENSLER: Well, for today, it’s gone. And it seems pretty gone, seems pretty far away. And, you know, it’s not disconnected from the women of Congo. I think there’s a real connection. I think the struggle that we’ve been engaged in for the last years in Bukavu and all over Congo to support women on the ground, taking back their voices, taking back their power, taking back their resources, taking back their bodies, taking back their country, really kept me alive. You know, I just couldn’t die. I felt so connected to it. And Christine and I were literally on the phone every day, through my chemo, through my operation, through my infections. But it was just — that was the running stream. And every time I thought about the City of Joy opening, I thought, OK, you know, there’s a reason to be here. There’s a reason, big reason, to keep going.

AMY GOODMAN: Christine, tell us about the City of Joy.

CHRISTINE SCHULER DESCHRYVER: The City of Joy is really like a dream that is coming true, because it was something that was created by the Congolese women. And at the beginning, it was just like a dream. And thanks to V-Day, who was like the wind behind our back, it becomes a reality. And we started receiving the first women like two weeks ago. So we are in the process. And it’s all amazing. I left Congo like two weeks ago. And every time I’m with them on the phone, they have new things. It’s like it really belongs to the Congolese women. So I just told them, “As long as we respect, you know, our budget and the program, just go on.”

AMY GOODMAN: The City of Joy originally, Eve, talk about the conception and how you also came to meet Christine and came to focus on the Congo in your work.

EVE ENSLER: Well, as you know, I’ve been traveling around the world for quite some time with V-Day, often visiting kind of the rape mines of the world. And I’ve seen terrible things, whether it’s Afghanistan or Haiti or Bosnia or Pakistan or Kosovo. But I have to say, when I got to Congo — and I was invited there at the request of Dr. Denis Mukwege, who’s an extraordinary doctor and director of Panzi Hospital in Bukavu — I spent two weeks interviewing women at Panzi Hospital, and my mind and soul and heart were shattered. I just hadn’t seen the level of violence in my life. I hadn’t — it just felt like it couldn’t possibly be happening in this century. And it also felt like the place where all these things had merged into a terrible cauldron, whether it was a history of colonialism and enslavement, whether it was the exploitation of indigenous people’s minerals, whether it was racism, whether it was sexism. They had all just come together. And the war was now being fought on the bodies of women. And I think — I immediately met Christine, and Christine was my translator in those early days. And we spent weeks together listening to the stories of women.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go to some of those stories. This is a clip from 2008, V-Day working with UNICEF to organize events in two cities in the DRC, where survivors of sexual violence publicly spoke out against violence and about their experiences for the first time. Seven women told their stories in front of community members and government and U.N. officials.

SURVIVOR 1: [translated] When they took my husband and hit him and tied him and tortured him and took him I don’t know where, they went and killed him wherever they had taken him. And then all seven men raped me. Then the neighbors heard what happened and found me unconscious. They looked at me and saw all my insides outside of my body.

SURVIVOR 2: [translated] They started taking the clothes off my children, and I told them, “Please, excuse me, you can’t do that. Instead of raping my children while I watch, just kill me first.”

SURVIVOR 3: [translated] A woman is supposed to be respected. We are not objects. Women get pregnant and breast-feed you. How come you disrespect me today in public?

SURVIVOR 4: [translated] The authorities of this country, how do you look at this rape issue and remain silent?

SURVIVOR 1: [translated] We are suffering because of rape. Rape should stop. It must stop.

SURVIVOR 5: [translated] I am speaking so that women who are hiding and others who have AIDS can come out, so they can be taught how to live.

AMY GOODMAN: Just excerpts of women describing their experiences in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Eve, I just gave these horrific figures at the beginning of this segment, talking about two million raped in the Democratic Republic of Congo, this report that just came out from the Journal of Public Health. How is the situation now? And the City of Joy, what exactly the women will be doing?

EVE ENSLER: Well, I think those statistics are old statistics. I mean, I think they were done from 2006, 2007. And my impression, and maybe — you know, I was just there recently — I don’t think as many women are being raped now in the Congo as before. There are certainly rapes going on, but it is getting better. And I have to say that I feel there’s a women’s spring beginning to happen in the Congo. We are seeing signs of it everywhere: the arrests that came and the prosecutions that we were talking about. I mean, I want Christine to talk a little bit about the Friends of V-Day at City of Joy and the energy and the impact of our four-year campaign, because I think what’s really beginning to happen is we’re birthing activists, you know?

AMY GOODMAN: Christine, talk about that and this whole issue of prosecutions and what they mean. I was reading a piece of a journalist who — a young woman was saying to him, you know, “My rapist is about to be tried,” and he just sat there quietly, the journalist, thinking, “Oh, this is so sad that she thinks her rapist is about to be tried, because we know that’s impossible in the Congo.” But in fact, it’s slowly but surely beginning to happen.

CHRISTINE SCHULER DESCHRYVER: Yeah. You know, we don’t have to see everything, you know, like in negative, because when we started with our campaign, we trained a lot of activists all over DRC. And now women really are breaking the silence. You know, the Congolese — I mean, the Congolese women are taking, you know, like, their power, because we told them that they don’t have to be ashamed for these rapes. The ones who are doing it have to be ashamed. For example, a few weeks ago, a deputy, a national deputy, was arrested in Kinshasa, and the ones who denounced that were activists we trained in Kinshasa. He’s under arrest, I think, for 18 months. So now, more and more, you know, we have the fruit of all the sensibilization we made and all the program we’ve made.

Also we have a group named Friends of V-Day, the women who started building the City of Joy. And after, when we finished with the building, they refused to leave. They said, “It’s our City of Joy.” So now they are gardeners. They are taking care of other women. They organized themselves like in a community. And they are just part of City of Joy. And that’s the beginning of something, because what we have to understand now is that there’s a big change. So many international NGOs come and say they’re coming, you know, for integration, social integration of women. How can you integrate a woman with a sewing machine? You know, these women, when you ask them, “What do you want?” you know, they want to be leaders, and they want to decide for themselves, because since centuries it’s like we impose everything to the Congolose. Now, I think, slowly, it’s time for the Congolese to tell themselves what they need. That’s why I insist on that word. We just have to be the wind behind the back of the Congolese, and they have to tell us what they want, and we have to follow them on that process to be leaders.

AMY GOODMAN: Last November, the Congolese former vice president, Jean-Pierre Bemba, pleaded not guilty to charges he gave his private army free rein to rape and murder men, women and children in the neighboring Central African Republic.

CHRISTINE SCHULER DESCHRYVER: Yeah. You know, this is all politics. And I think if Jean-Pierre Bemba, of course, is in Den Haag today, but I think so many others can also be there, because so many people — you know, we had like how many groups of rebels. And I think everyone has kind of responsibilities with everything that happened in DRC.

AMY GOODMAN: The numbers of girls — I mean, this past summer, this catastrophe that took place, 300 to 500 women, girls, even babies, that were raped, under the nose of the U.N. forces, how did that happen? And clearly, you are feeling hopeful, Eve. So what gives you hope? That happened just last summer.

EVE ENSLER: Well, I think it’s safe to say that this peacekeeping force has not been an entirely successful force, to say the least. I think it hasn’t — I mean, most of the women live in the forest and in the bush, and so there was a justification for why they weren’t able to protect them when they were in the bush, you know, that they were so far in. The Walikale thing was ridiculous because they were so close by.

And again — and I say this with all deep respect — if your intention is not to protect women, if you do not understand what it really means to be sexually violated, to be raped, to be occupied, to be dominated, to be destroyed, if you don’t — then your intention to protect will never be successful. And I do not feel yet that the U.N. has that deep understanding and will — and will — what it takes to — you know, I always say this, lately. I woke up one morning, and I thought to myself, if this were happening in Santa Barbara, California, OK, and we heard that thousands of women were being raped a day, 1,100 women being raped a day in Santa Barbara, California, and California heard that Africans were doing studies about them being raped, while the rapes were continuing, how would the people in Santa Barbara feel? You know?

Why have we not created a peace force that has been able to protect the women? Why have we not built world intent and world pressure and world will to stop the fighting? Because obviously there are deeper economic interests at stake. There are corporate interests at stake. There are governments and corporations that are merged in those interests, are the dominating interests. And I think until we really understand what sexual violence does, what one rape does to a woman’s life, how it determines the rest of her existence, how her whole life will be shaped by that and robbed by that, how it will determine her self-esteem, her ability to be intimate, her ability to connect, her ability to have a job, her confidence, her ability to — the way she treats her boy children — until we understand the magnitude of one rape, there will really be no — because I think it’s all about intention in the end. I really do.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to break, then come back. Our guests are V-Day founder Eve Ensler, award-winning playwright, author, creator of The Vagina Monologues and V-Day, the global movement to stop violence against women and girls, and Christine Schuler Deschryver, Congolese human rights activist, director of V-Day Congo and director of City of Joy. This is Democracy Now! We’ll be back in a minute.


AMY GOODMAN: Our guests today are Christine Schuler Deschryver — she’s a Congolese human rights activist, just here in New York for a bit of time — thrilled we can have her in studio — director of V-Day Congo and the City of Joy; Eve Ensler, award-winning playwright and creator of The Vagina Monologues and V-Day, the global movement to stop violence against women and girls.

Eve, you’re about to win an award at the Tonys. Congratulations for that.

EVE ENSLER: Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: The Isabelle Stevenson Award for humanitarian efforts to stop violence.

EVE ENSLER: Thank you. I’m very — I’m very humbled and moved. And I’m also excited because I think it’s an acknowledgment, on some level, that theater can impact social reality and can create revolutions and can change the world, you know, can change people. And it’s also, I think, an acknowledgment of women and the power of women around the world to use theater to raise money, to transform their own lives, and to break taboos. So, I’m very excited.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, one of the countries you have been working in extensively, raising money for women, is in Haiti. In January, as Haiti marked the first anniversary of the devastating earthquake that killed — well, not clear how many people, perhaps close to a quarter of a million people, Amnesty International warned Haitian women and girls are facing an increasing threat of sexual violence. Amnesty said more than 250 cases of rape in several makeshift camps were reported in the first 150 days after the January 14, 2010, quake. Gerardo Ducos is a researcher for Amnesty in Haiti.

GERARDO DUCOS: The women and girls are being attacked under the shelters, in the camps, dragged by a group of men into a secluded area or into another tent and just being raped there, because in most of the camps there is no lighting at night or even in the streets, so obviously that creates an environment that is conducive to these kind of aggressions.

AMY GOODMAN: That is about Haiti, the situation in Haiti. You were supposed to be joined this week by a Haitian feminist, women’s rights activist, Elvire Eugene, but she didn’t get a passport to come up?

EVE ENSLER: No, and we’re very sad, because we have our big event, our fundraising event, tomorrow night, and she’s an extraordinary activist. And I think it kind of typifies the situation in Haiti. She went to get a passport, and there’s no records of people’s passports. So, for three weeks, she was trying to get — it’s really a kind of Beckett-like situation. You go to the office for passports, but there’s no records of anybody’s passport, so there’s no beginning place to get your passport. So she’s stuck there.

And to me, having just been in Haiti a month ago or so, I was really shocked just to see the state of existence in Haiti right now. I was shocked to see how little of that money has arrived that the world has promised; shocked to see that the conditions really had not improved drastically at all; shocked to see, really, the situation that women are living in, in terms of the camps, and the incredible vulnerability of women; and how — you know, just one particular story of a woman who I met with who had her daughter in the camp and had a wonderful job — you know, she had a job beforehand, she was making money, and the earthquake wiped out her job. And she was there in the camp, and she went to church, and she left her daughter. And when she came back, her daughter was bleeding. And she went to see what was wrong with her daughter and that her daughter had been raped by an old man. And her daughter then began to get this terrible infection, which she had no money to fix. And she’s been infected ever since, and her mother has nowhere to go. And there’s no way. And now she can’t leave the camp to get a job, because she can’t leave her daughter, who could be raped again, because she was a wonderful mother. And I think this is a very typical situation. And I think what’s really disturbing is, where’s the money? I mean, that’s something we talk about a lot. Like, where does the money go that comes to these countries, right?

AMY GOODMAN: Christine?

CHRISTINE SCHULER DESCHRYVER: Yeah, because we do have the same problem, you know, in DRC. Every morning, when we turn on the radios, we can hear that millions, millions and millions for Congo. And at the end, who is taking benefit of all this money? It’s not the Congolese. It’s like, you know, like you do have some NGOs, international NGOs. For example, in DRC, you have like more than 25 expats. So do you know how much money it costs for an expat? And we do have lots of human resources in DRC.

AMY GOODMAN: What do you mean, an expat?

CHRISTINE SCHULER DESCHRYVER: An expat, that means they decided to bring, like, people from outside to take care of the Congolese. So all the monies go to the salaries, to their comfort, to their cars and everything. And at the end, you just have few parts left for the Congolese. They don’t even give enough jobs. And when they have jobs, they are not paid.

And I think, slowly, you know, that the Congolese have to take their power back and decide how the money has to be used, because all this money goes to the outside debt from Congo. And they are not — they don’t even take benefit of that money. And that’s something that really gets me so mad, because it’s like everyone has his conscience and say, “We gave this amount of millions to Congolese. But what for?” You know, it’s like for the U.N. What for? What are they really doing for the Congolese? Even like I said before, like all the program for the social-economic reintegration, some NGOs have big reports that they integrated x thousands of women. But how? How can you integrate a woman, for example, in a community with a sewing machine? How can you do that? Today the market is invaded with all the Chinese clothes and everything.

So, I need — I think sometimes Congolese need to ask, you know, for international audit to see how much money they had for themselves, how much was used, and how much left for them, because we cannot continue like this. Otherwise, in the next 50 years, we will still — you know, international community will still assist the Congolese, and nothing will ever change. And I don’t want to hear again the people saying that the problem in Congo is too complicated. People just want to say it’s too complicated, because they have their own interest, and they don’t care at all about what’s going on.

AMY GOODMAN: Christine, talk about your own coming to activism, what caused you to be so active on this issue and become the director of the City of Joy.

CHRISTINE SCHULER DESCHRYVER: You know, it’s also due to my own history, because I was born from — my mother is Congolese. She was never at school. And my father was a child of very rich Belgian colonialists. So I saw my mother suffering all her life just because she was black. And it was forbidden at that time for them to get married. So since I was a little child, and when they sent me to school in Belgium, I was like member of — already when I was 12 years old, I was like, you know, demonstrating on the street against racism, against all this, because I could not accept that you can suffer because of the color of your skin.

Even myself, I don’t know from where I am. I’m kind of a world citizen. But the only thing I know is that Congo is my country, because even if I’m — when I’m in Belgium, in America, in Switzerland, when I go home, I’m going to Congo. And then, of course, I lost so many friends, so many relatives, because of this stupid war. And before, before I met Eve, I was working for 13 years for the German Technical Cooperation, who most of the time just told me — I’m sorry, just to shut up and to do my work. And by the time I met Eve Ensler from V-Day, I was like, my goodness, I’m losing my time. So I resigned, because I would like to do something for this country, where I was born. I would like to do something in the name of all my friends and my relatives I’ve lost. And I feel so useful now, you know, instead of being in my office and doing all this stupid administration. Now, I have to say, I feel very useful for DRC and for the Congolese people.

AMY GOODMAN: And Eve, for people who aren’t familiar with this movement, V-Day, and what it is you’re doing in Congo and other places, and how this all grew out of The Vagina Monologues, and what it is?

EVE ENSLER: Well, I performed The Vagina Monologues for a while, at the beginning, in very kind of obscure places, because only very brave people would bring me there. You know, I’d be in Santa Fe one day, and the next day I’d be in Pittsburgh, and then I’d be in Zagreb. It was very arbitrary where I would end up. But what I discovered very quickly was that many, many, many women would come up to me after the show to talk about how they’ve been raped or abused. And it was shocking. You know, it was epidemic. It was kind of like the play had unearthed what a lot of women had already been working on at that time, but I never knew the degree of it.

And I thought in 1998, we have this play, you know, what could we do with this play to end violence against women? Not to maintain it or manage it, but to actually end it, you know? And we started one show, one performance in New York, you know, and all these great actors came and performed it, and 2,500 people came. And that was almost 14 years ago. And it kind of opened the door to V-Day, and it just began to spread like wildfire.

AMY GOODMAN: I just saw you at the Paley Center being interviewed by Pat Mitchell, who used to be at CNN, and she talked about when she first interviewed you. And she was identifying you as the author of the [clears throat] Monologues. The Vagina Monologues, she couldn’t say, because CNN wouldn’t allow that word to be used. They’ve since changed their policy. But what it is, what this play is, and why it has caused this world, what, revolution?

EVE ENSLER: Well, I think, in a way, it is a world revolution. You know, to some degree, I understand it; to some degree, I don’t. I think there’s something about uttering unspeakable things that breaks a silence and begins to liberate people. And I think women performing the play all over the world, in 140 countries — yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: Keep going.

EVE ENSLER: No, this year there were about 5,000 productions. And I think being able to speak about your sexuality, being able to tell your secrets, being able to long for pleasure, being able to talk about how your pleasure has been derailed, being able to talk about where you’ve been abused, where you’ve been raped, where you’ve been incested, where you’ve been cut, where you’ve been sold — you know, we’re talking about one out of three women on the planet have been raped or beaten.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to ask you about an issue in New York right now. Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the former head of the IMF, who was just arraigned, pleading not guilty to abusing a housekeeper at a hotel here in New York, a Muslim African woman.

EVE ENSLER: Well, I think there’s many things about this story that are very, very positive and many things that are horrific. We’ll begin with horrific. You know, I think the fact that DSK raped and attacked a housekeeper in the Sofitel is not a surprise, based on the history of DSK and the history of men in power and the history of the man who’s the head of IMF, which is busy raping Africa anyway. I think, you know, we’re not like shocked by that idea, because based on interviews of everybody who’s talked about him, down to Sarkozy, who told him after he hired him, “Don’t be caught alone in an elevator with an intern. We don’t want a scandal.” Everyone in France was very aware of DSK’s problem and, really, the fact that he had issues with women.

AMY GOODMAN: We have 30 seconds.

EVE ENSLER: I think what’s amazing is that a woman has come forward to prosecute and that a female judge held it, and I think that is where the world has changed. And I think we all need to get behind that woman with all our beings and make sure she gets a fair trial and make sure she gets a lawyer, and make sure she gets the kind of lawyers that DSK has, so she will have equal justice.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to leave it there. I thank you very much for being with us, Eve Ensler, the award-winning playwright, creator of The Vagina Monologues and V-Day, and Christine Schuler Deschryver, who is a Congolese human rights activist and director of V-Day Congo and the City of Joy.

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Eve Ensler Responds to Sexual Assault Charges Filed Against Former IMF Chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn

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