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Former UN Envoy and Playwright Team Up Against Rape, AIDS in DRC

One of the tragedies of the war in the eastern DRC is the huge number of women who have been raped.

Playwright Eve Ensler is the founder of V-Day – a global movement to end violence against women and girls that has raised nearly $70 million dollars. She has made several visits to Panzi Hospital in the DRC's South Kivu Province, where many rape victims are brought. From Toronto, Canada, she spoke to VOA English to Africa Service reporter Joe De Capua about her impressions when she paid her first visit to the hospital.

"Because of V-day…I've spent the last 10 years traveling to probably 60 and I've spent a lot of time in what I call the rape mines of the world. You know, in Bosnia, in Afghanistan and Haiti and Kosovo. But I have to tell you nothing quite prepared me for the level of violence and atrocities that I heard and witnessed in the Democratic Republic of Congo," she says.

She says that the war has been allowed to continue with impunity, describing the government as non-functional and UN peacekeepers as ineffective. "Because it's gone on for so long, it's become ordinary. It's become something that's now a part of everyday life. As an activist said there, rape has become a country sport," she says.

Ensler says estimates put the number of women raped in the eastern DRC in the last 10 years at up to 400,000. "But the kind of violence that's going on – the gang rapings, the militias that are released knowing that they have AIDS and released on communities knowing they have STDs… Girls as young as four months, six months old, tons of eight year old girls, teenagers, woman as old as 80…being raped with knives, being raped by guns," she says.

Many of the woman who've been raped have fistula – holes in internal organs, such as the bladder. "I've been back (to Panzi) three times and each time…there's another two to three hundred women there, brand new women, who have been raped. And to see women who have been made incontinent, who are peeing and pooping on themselves because of the kind of punctures they have inside their bodies, to see women lined up for operations as a result of sexual violation, it felt like being on the other side of humanity," she says.

Ensler uses the term femicide to describe widespread violence against women and girls.

Asked what could be done, Ensler says, "We have started a huge campaign called Stop Raping Our Greatest resource – Power to the Women and Girls of the DRC. And we're doing it in partnership with UNICEF and 17 (other) UN agencies, as well as many groups on the ground. We're doing forums all over the eastern Congo where women are speaking out and breaking the silence."

She says the campaign is behind the City of Joy, "which will be the first center for a hundred women who have suffered these atrocities, but where it becomes a leadership academy so we turn pain to power. And then we're building an international movement this V-Day where at all the thousands of events around the world people will be focused on the DRC.… If we can change the situation in the Congo, we can do it everywhere."

Joining Ensler in calling for immediate action on the DRC is Stephen Lewis, former UN special envoy for AIDS in Africa and founder of the Stephen Lewis foundation.

He says, "The most important thing is to talk with the women of the Congo, particularly the women who have been raped and subject to sexual violence. There is a tendency, particularly from the United Nations, to deal only with the men with guns and think that if they can stop the shooting they've ended the war. But there's another component to the war. And it's called rape. And the raping has never ended (In the DRC) from 1996 to this day. And you're never going to end the war in the Congo until you prevent the violence to the women. And therefore you've got to involve the women in the peace negotiations. And incredibly enough, they have never been involved," he says.

Lewis says the UN special envoy to the DRC has not spoken to the women. "So when the (UN) secretary-general appoints the former president of Nigeria, Obasanjo – Obasanjo runs around and he speaks to the rebel head (Laurent) Nkunda and he runs off to speak to the president of Congo, (Joseph) Kabila, and he'll speak to (President Paul) Kagame of Rwanda, it's all wrong. The place you start is with the women because they have been the most ferocious subjects of the war," Lewis says.

Lewis says the sexual violence is fueling the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the DRC. "We all know that the act of raping, particularly the violence of the sexual assaults, create tears in the reproductive tracts of the women through which the AIDS virus can be transmitted. So, inevitably, you have this dual horror. One the one hand you are subject to a rape, frequently a gang rape, and on the other hand you end up HIV positive…. And your life is ruined in both aspects. It reminds me of Rwanda. It reminds me of Darfur. The international community just stands and watches this happen. We have 17,000 United Nations peacekeepers in the Congo, whose mandate it is to protect the women and they cannot protect the women," he says.

The former UN special envoy is calling for triple the number of peacekeeping troops in the eastern DRC. "Three years ago, the entire world agreed on a new international principle. The principle was called the responsibility to protect. The leaders said to each other if a government is unable or unwilling to protect its people from grotesque violations of human rights, then the international community has the right to intervene," he says.

Lewis says that the intervention can be done "politically, diplomatically, economically or we can send in troops. And frankly what the Congo needs at this point is troops."