Monday, January 19, 2009

Ensler Leads DC Demonstration against Sexual Violence in DRC

Eve Ensler fired up a rally at Lafayette Park in front of the White House this Saturday with a passionate call to end the widespread practice of sexual violence against women in eastern DRC. "I have been to Afghanistan, I have been to Bosnia, but I have never seen such violent desecration of women as I have in the Congo."

The rally was sponsored by Friends of the Congo, the Congo Global Action Coalition and several other Congo-focused groups. Most of the 100 or so demonstrators at the rally were themselves Congolese. They carried placards--some illustrated with graphic photos of the violence in DRC--demanding an end to the war. Many of the preliminary speakers expressed enormous hope that Obama would be able quickly to put an end to the suffering of the Congolese. "2009 will be a different year altogether," said one speaker, who had driven overnight from Atlanta to attend the rally.

But it was Ensler who really put the crowd on fire. "Africa is the heart of the world," she said. "And Congo is the heart of Africa, and women are the beating pulse of that heart."

Ensler spoke of the extraordinary work being done by Denis Mukwege, who was recently awarded the UN Human Rights Prize and named "African of the Year" for his work at Panzi Hospital in Bukavu, repairing the physical damage done to raped women. But she spoke of other, lesser-known heroes as well, including women who had arrived at the hospital traumatized by their experiences but who now advocate for justice and help others heal. And she spoke of the many men in the Congo who are outraged by what has been done to the women of their communities and are eager to work on their behalf.

I came away impressed--more impressed than I thought I would be. Ensler is clearly committed to the cause--she's not using it to piggy back on her own celebrity, as some stars seem to do. And unlike some American activists, she believes in, and advocates for, local empowerment. She does not indulge in the narcissistic belief that American power and goodwill are sufficient to solve African problems, if only we engaged enough--which is so often the first response of American activists in this country, including some in our own government. Instead, she rightly puts the emphasis on Africa's true leaders (who are rarely the ones in power), who have the local expertise to address the problems of their communities and who must be the primary architects of their future. Yes, they may need specialized expertise--and they certainly need greater resources that can only come from the West--but they, and not us, are the ones who should be taking center stage. Ensler's the real deal, and you should definitely check out her web site.

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