April 28, 2009
Parliament for Ottawa-Centre, Canada
I am here today because you—THE CANADIAN GOVERNMENT—have a unique opportunity to put an end to one of the worst humanitarian crises of modern times. You are not the U.S. You are not Europe. You have a reputation for fairness and generosity around the world. You are blessed with a huge supply of international good will that would allow you to be bold and take the lead here. It can be your legacy to inspire and provoke the world community to put an end to the worst femicide and genocide of the last ten years.
As some of you may know, my play The Vagina Monologues led me into the world of violence against women and girls. Everywhere I traveled with it scores of women lined up to tell me of their agonies and humiliations, the rapes, the incest, the beatings, the mutilations. It was because of this that over 11 years ago we launched V-Day, a worldwide movement to end violence against women and girls. In that time the movement has spread like wild fire to 120 countries, raising nearly 70 million dollars through the efforts of grassroots anti-violence activists across the planet. This year there were 4000 V-Day events alone in 1400 places, 1000 teach-ins on the Congo. I tell you all this so that you understand that in 11 years I have been to over 60 countries. I have visited and revisited the rape mines of the world from Bosnia to Haiti to Afghanistan to college campuses and communities all over North America—actually everywhere I’ve been in the world. I have heard stories every hour of every day for over a decade. 1 out of 3 women on this planet will be raped or beaten in her lifetime.
I am here to tell you that nothing I have heard or seen compares with what is going on in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
When I returned from my first trip there nearly 2 years ago, I was shattered. I had crossed over to another zone in my psyche. I am not sure I will ever get back.
Upon my return, still in a state of initial madness, I was unfazed by all those who said the world was not interested in the Congo, all those survivors and activists I had met in Bukavu and Goma who had been working for years with their counterparts in the Congolese Diaspora throughout the world. Those like Dr Mukwege, a man as close to being a saint as anyone I have ever met. A Congolese doctor OB/GYN, founder of the Panzi Hospital in Bukavu who has been sewing up women and little girl’s vaginas for 12 years as fast as the militias are ripping them apart. A man who told me that the international community comes, eats sandwiches and cries but never comes back. I was unfazed by the cynicism and doubt as any new, mad zealot. There was just a misunderstanding. The world simply hadn’t gotten the necessary information. No world government, no leader, no body of the UN could turn its back, could sit and do nothing when they heard what I had heard, seen what I had seen. In 12 years 6 million dead Congolese. A quarter million displaced. Hundreds and thousands of women and girls raped and tortured. Babies as young as 6 months, women as old as 80, their insides torn asunder. No one could rightly ignore Femicide–the systematic and planned destruction and annihilation of a female population as a tactic of war to clear villages, pillage mines of their coltan gold and tin, and wear away the fabric of Congolese society. No one could turn their back on Beatrice, a lean, pretty woman who was found in the forest after a soldier shot a gun in her vagina. She now has tubes instead of organs, or Lumo who was raped by over 50 men in the course of one day and has had nine operations and still has fistula, or Honorata who was taken by militia and tied to a wheel upside down then was raped and raped and over by so many soldiers she lost count—they called her “the queen”, or Sowadi who watched the soldiers choke and smash the skulls of her children then was forced to watch her best friend’s child cut from her pregnant belly and after they were forced to eat the dead cooked baby or die. It goes on and on. Women who were being raped as they watched their husbands being slaughtered, women watching their daughters being raped, sons being forced to rape their sisters and mothers, husbands watching their wives be raped. Sons being raped. All this happening for 12 years, all this happening right now as I speak.
I believed that just telling their stories, speaking these words, would be enough to propel those with power into action. For two years, I have spoken these words at Downing Street, at the Senate in DC, at the ministry in Paris. I have met with members of Parliament in the Congo, in Paris, in London in Brussels. I have met with the first ladies in London, Congo, California, Paris. I have visited and revisited the UN. Had a face to face meeting with the Secretary General, testified in front of the Security Council, lunched with ambassadors, had tea with ambassadors wives (the most activist group within the UN in my view), met with the Deputy Secretary of Humanitarian Affairs, the head of UNIFEM, UN Stop Action, UN High Commissioner on Human Rights. With many others I have pleaded for more peacekeepers asking over and over when the so-called 3000 troops who are supposedly on their way to DRC will ever show up? Asking when the powers that be might flex their diplomatic muscle in the best interest of the Congolese people by advocating for a political solution to the largest conflict since WWII.
I have felt a murderous lethargy in the halls of power. I have heard members of the European Parliament say they had no idea it was even happening. I have been in situation after situation where the serving of protocol trumps the saving of human lives. I have heard empty promises and straight out lies. I have waited as those that have the power to change this situation work through bureaucracy and hierarchies so that months and months pass and nothing is ever done. And then when it is all too late, ill conceived plans made in back rooms are rushed into play that bring more violence and rapes but get labeled success by the world community. Witness the recent joint military operations against the FDLR (the remnants of the Hutu genocidaires) by the Congolese and Rwandan troops in January, now be touted in the west as a success. A success for whom? We know the action was a failure, as rather than neutralizing the FDLR, it scattered them, emboldening them to rape and pillage with reckless abandon. There is a hit-list out now for those acted against them.
According to human rights groups hundreds of women have been raped with the same numbers of villagers being killed over the past two months by rebels as well as government forces in volatile eastern Congo—these are the cases that can be documented—we know the reality is far worse. Evidence of major abuses by the Congolese army also exist.
The women we work with in Goma at the Heal Africa hospital are reporting 500 raped women have arrived each month since January. The Secretary General’s recent report says a thousand women arrive each month—that would be 36 raped women a day. Now, all of South Kivu is clenched, sleepless as they wait for the next nightmarish incursion. Even the MONUC officials themselves do not hold back when talking about their lack of faith in the situation on the ground–during a recent security briefing about South Kivu one Colonel said publicly that the joint operation of MONUC and the Congolese army will be a huge disaster that will most probably end in terrible tragedy because strategy, logistical support, and funding for soldiers was lacking, not to mention that the vast, dense forest proves to be a difficult place to win. Even Alan Doss, Special Representative of the General Secretary of the United Nations in DRC, admitted on Radio Okapi that he needs more men if the mission is ever to succeed.
What these policies or strategies indicate, (if we can call them that, as strategies usually imply a vision of outcome and consequences) and what the last ten years of policies indicate, is the profound indifference and shocking disregard for the lives of the Congolese people, in particular women and girls on the ground.
There is something sinister afoot. I was there in Bosnia during the war in 1994. When it was discovered that there were rape camps and that thousands of women were being raped as a strategy of war. I watched the rapid response of the world community or the western world community. After all these were white women in Europe being raped. Within two years there was adequate intervention. It has been 12 years in the DRC. Hundreds of thousands of women and girls raped and tortured. I can only believe now that we are dealing not just with the terribly legacy of genocidal colonialism in the DRC, the core impact of it now lodged in the DNA of the worst perpetrators, but more disturbingly the Congo has become not the “heart of darkness”, but the “heart of racism”– the place where the worlds disregard, indifference towards black people and particularly black women has completely manifested. I cannot tell you how often people say to me are you are crazy. The Congo will never be saved. It is doomed, cursed. As if there were a zone now on the planet that had been designated finished, failed. The problem is human beings, gorgeous, kind, loving, longing human beings are living there.
Is it because the powers that be care more about power and resources and money? Is it that coltan, the mineral that keeps our cell phones and computers in play, is more important than the bodies and souls of little Congolese girls? Canadian mining companies has significant economic investment in the DRC and I fear they privilege economic interest over the bodies of women. There is a scene in Romeo Dallaries very heart breaking book Shake Hands with the Devil where, after the Rwandan war has broken out French soldiers are loading expatriates into vehicles. He writes, “Hundreds of Rwandans had gathered to watch all these white entrepreneurs, NGO staff and their families making fearful exits. I saw how aggressively the French were pushing black Rwandans seeking asylum out of the way. A sense of shame came over me. The whites who had made their money in Rwanda and had hired so many Rwandans to be their servants and labourers were now abandoning them. Self-interest and self-preservation ruled.” How different is this than the current situation in the Congo? We in the west with our cell phones and play station and computers filled with minerals extracted on the bodies of women. We in the west leaving the women in the forests to be raped and tortured. Self-interests rules. Racism rules. Is it the British and US guilt over terrible inaction in Rwanda (which allowed genocide), which now allows them to turn a blind eye to Rwanda’s role in the femicide and murder of the Congolese?
Is it simply that the UN and most governments are run and controlled by men who have never known what it feels like to have bayonet shoved up their vagina or who have never lost a bladder and rectum and then had to wait for months for a pouch for their urine and feces so they could be freed from sitting in a wretched smell exiled from everyone and everywhere? Is it that they won’t allow themselves to imagine what this feels like? Or is it that patriarchy has so normalized violence against women that none of this shocks or disturbs them? Is it that they know that for patriarchy to continue, for them to keep their power, this violence must continue as well?
What is happening in the DRC is the worst violence towards women in the world. If it continues to go unchecked, unstopped, if there continues to be complete impunity it sets a precedent, a standard, it expands the boundaries of what now becomes permissible to do to women’s bodies in the name of exploitation and greed everywhere. Already it is spreading. Just this week I received an email which documented that Congolese soldiers are kidnapping and selling young Congolese girls between 12 and 16 years of age to Angolan soldiers. This impunity sends a signal to the world that the bodies of women and children will be the new battleground on which cheap wars will be fought. It says the international community is willing to sacrifice African women and girls to get the resources it needs. And we know as resources become more precious, more and more women, first the poor and marginalized, then the rest will be sacrificed.
Women of the Congo are the strongest, most resilient women of the world. They need to be able to protect themselves. We need to train and pay for Congolese women police officers in the bush as part of the new special security plan. We need to address our role in plundering minerals and we need to demand that companies trace the routes of these minerals make sure they are making and selling rape-free-products. Mainly, we need to support building a functioning infrastructure in the DRC so the Congolese can rule their own destinies. In our campaign, Stop Raping Our Greatest Resource: Power to the Women and Girls of the DRC, women on the ground, with V-Day and Unicef, are building a women’s movement that I believe is the future of the DRC.
Women are breaking the silence, educating their families about their rights and sexuality, demanding justice, marching, building a City of Joy, a center for survivors who will become the next leaders of the DRC. Women, I tell you, I know are the future of the Congo. Up to this day, grassroots Congolese women have kept their communities alive through informal trade and labor. I believe these women will bring the social and economic change needed in the DRC, if they are given the opportunity to reach the decision-making level of governance of the country.
We need accountability. We need an end to war. We need women compensated and at the peace table.
I am here today in solidarity with my Congolese sisters, who call on the DRC State and the International community and bilateral donors to support long-term programs aiming at strengthening the development of a democratic culture and the respect of state institutions by national and international actors operating in the DRC. The ongoing impunity and insecurity particularly in the East of the DRC, is destroying communities, families and lives.
After 60 years of the UN Declaration of Human Rights, 30 years of the Commission for the Elimination of all Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and eight years of UN Security Council Resolution 1325, and in solidarity with the dignity of Congolese people, my Congolese sisters and a global network of their allies call on the UN Security Council to:
Only an end to armed conflicts will enable the restoration of rule of law, which will guarantee security for all; and facilitate education and development in the DRC. We invite the International Community to urgently respond to the DRC crisis and provide support for women’s participation and representation in preparation for the 2011 elections.
I know that the good citizens of the world—those that are informed—care about the women of the Congo. In the last months I have witnessed thousands of real people who have mobilized raising money, educating themselves, educating their communities, about the horrors that endure. But where are the powers that be? I ask you, the Canadian government, lead the world. Take action. Make this your mission.
As I was writing these remarks I dreamed I spoke another language. I dreamed that I was able to craft a sentence, to assemble a group of words that without violence could break through denial and apathy and the resignation that is a sure mask for racism and sexism. I dreamed that I found a sound that was so sharp and so accurate and so disturbing that it could rip open concern. Imagine if you will that I am screaming. Imagine I cannot stop screaming. Imagine thousands of women in the Congo who have stopped screaming because they no longer expect their cries to be heard. Imagine that you are in your house and you are being dragged away and you watch you daughter who came from your womb be stolen and raped by gangs and your husband who has been your love for 20 years be shot in his head and then as this was happening other men were shoving sticks into you and putting fuel in you and lighting it in your vagina. Imagine even then you do not scream because this is not the first time. You were raped before and no one came then.
If I spoke this language it would have resonance and after we caught our breath and we attempted to move back to our comfortable lives, or almost comfortable lives, the language would pull and tug and as we sipped our lattes and fretted over promotions or new kitchen tiles or being invited to the party or not being invited, the language would render all that nonsense, would render all life fruitless until the cries of the women were heard. This language would be our language. It would be the human language and we would know through it that women and girls of Eastern Congo are dying and as they die we as a human species die because we have through our willing ignorance allowed for the boundaries of horror and cruelty to be expanded.
Nothing would stop you then because you would now know that the death of an African daughter is the death of your own. The death of a Congolese mother is the death of your mother. I am searching for this language. I am searching to find the way to get to you.
Take whatever power you have and put your energy towards the women of the Congo. They are our greatest resource and they need the resources of their country to be their own. They need the world to stop stealing and raping and plundering their land and their minds and bodies. They need us at their backs. Not giving direction, not recolonizing with our good intentions, but following and supporting their lead, their right to their country and future.
Here, where violence against women is the worst on the planet, where corporate greed, capitalist consumption and the rape of women have merged into a single nightmare. Here, where there is the greatest darkness, there is the potential for the greatest light. Let the Congo be where we ended femicide, the trend that is madly eviscerating this planet–from the floggings in Pakistan, to new rape laws in Afghanistan, to the insane raping in Darfur, Haiti, South Africa, Kenya and Zimbabwe, to the mass murders in Juarez, to the daily battering and family rapes in households in every city, town and village across North America and Europe, to the selling and trafficking, enslaving, harassing, acid burning, genital cutting and honor killing across this planet. Let the Congo be the place where women were finally cherished and life affirmed, where the humiliation and subjugation ended. I ask you in my very limited language: PUT YOUR ATTENTION HERE.