Hope in the City of Joy

In 2009, I visited the Democratic Republic of Congo for the first time and I remember feeling utterly overwhelmed. It was a trip that really opened my eyes or, should I say, slapped me in the face with the realities of the country. I had heard so much about the violence, particularly against women, but nothing had prepared me. I listened to stories from women and girls about extreme horrors inflicted on them. I learned how families and villages have been torn apart through a plague of terror using sexual violence as a tool of destruction. It was a kind of devastation that I had never seen before.

I left the country questioning what we could do, when the organization V-Day offered a ray of hope with the City of Joy. The City of Joy is a place where survivors of sexual violence can go to heal physically and emotionally, and gain skills and leadership training through programming. The knowledge they gain here will allow them to return to their homes with tools to help rebuild their lives. The concept seemed innovative and I was particularly drawn to the fact that it was thought up completely by the women of the DRC themselves. Who better to decide how to address their real needs?

In February, I had the opportunity to go back to the DRC for the City of Joy opening. A group of us, a V-Day delegation, came together from various parts of the world to travel to Bukavu. In all honesty, part of me was scared. Scared to return and open myself up to the all the emotions and heartache of this country, but it was also fear that drove me back. How can we not return when the situation there is so dire? How dare I let my fear even for a moment make me think twice, when these people live with this fear everyday? So I went and, along with the rest of the delegation, arrived with all the love and hope I could possibly bring. We showed up not only to celebrate something joyful in the midst of all this chaos -- the opening of the City of Joy -- but also to remind the women of Bukavu that they are not forgotten.

Photo by Paula Allen for V-Day

The opening celebration was absolutely incredible. There were hundreds of women and community members dancing, speaking out, and there was so much gratitude and hope. And yet amid the happiness there was still the reality of the situation around us. One Congolese woman got up and spoke and I found her particularly brave and inspiring. She said, "If this was happening in your country it would have ended a long time ago." She is right. Never would we turn our backs on people in the developed world in the way that the world turns its back on the DRC. V-Day founder Eve Ensler said something amazing that I can't quote directly, but it was to the effect of "Congo is the heart of Africa and Africa is the heart of the world. And what affects the heart affects all of us". This country is bleeding to death and it's up to us to step in and help put an end to this. There is no excuse good enough to allow such crimes against humanity to continue.

In some ways the work we do in the DRC seems like a tiny drop in a big bucket of violence. At the same time I saw and felt the incredible potential that day. These women are capable of so much. A small example is in the construction of the City of Joy. V-Day chose to use a mostly female construction team, likely a first in the history of the DRC. Many doubted their capabilities, but the women welcomed and rose to the challenge. The construction is outstanding and these women, now beginning to understand their own potential, have decided to create their own construction business. V-Day was inspired by this and gave the women a grant to get their business off the ground.

The City of Joy has the capacity to change and inspire groups of women. These women can change their communities. And these communities can change the province and the country. I believe it is in this way that the message of turning pain to power can spread like an epidemic. Just as violence and terror spread throughout the country, why can there not be an epidemic of empowerment and peace?

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon once said, "Investing in women is not only the right thing to do. It is the smart thing to do.

"I am deeply convinced that, in women, the world has at its disposal the most significant and yet largely untapped potential for development and peace. Gender equality is not only a goal in itself, but a prerequisite for reaching all the other international development goals, including the Millennium Development Goals."

Let us hope the City of Joy will be the place where attitudes may be changed about the value of women and where the movement of equality in the DRC starts, so that we may someday see an end to the violence and a better quality of life for all.

Charlize Theron is a United Nations Messenger of Peace with a special focus on promoting the end of violence against women. She was appointed by current UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in November 2008.

In 2007, she founded the Charlize Theron Africa Outreach Project with the mission to help reduce the prevalence of HIV/AIDS and sexual violence among African youth through preventive education. To learn more visit www.charlizeafricaoutreach.org or follow on twitter at www.twitter.com/charlizeafrica.

V-Day is a global movement to end violence against women and girls that raises funds and awareness through benefit productions of Playwright/Founder Eve Ensler's award winning play The Vagina Monologues. Through its international campaigns, the movement has informed millions about the issue, and has reopened shelters and funded thousands of community-based anti-violence programs and safe-houses around the world.