For the past week, we at Journalists for Human Rights have been running a campaign called HollerDay to actively raise awareness about the epidemic of rape in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and raise funds for our programs in the country that will train journalists on how to effectively and responsibly report on this issue and human rights in general. Naming March 4th "HollerDay" and encouraging students across Canada to raise their voice against this horrific violation of human rights, we tried to shed a lighter side to an otherwise disheartening reality.

Known as the rape capital of the world, the DRC sees women being raped, re-raped, and gang raped every single day. Rape has, quite simply, become the weapon of war...cheaper than bullets and more effective than killing. According to the UN Population Fund, there were 15,996 cases of rape registered in 2008 alone. 65% of those victims were children in their early adolescence... not even really "women". Can you imagine how many others went unreported because of fear and humiliation? Such appalling figures.

But alas, figures are only figures. They barely tell the story of the horrific reality that the women of the DRC face every single day. I first learned about this problem when reading Nick Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn's 'Half the Sky'...the first time I was introduced to a human face and personal dimension to this abstract and seemingly distant problem. They told the story of Dina who, only seventeen at the time of writing, on her way home from her parents' farm was gang raped by militia men. I'm going to share an excerpt from the book that tells her story. It's not pleasant...it's actually downright disgusting. My apologies in advance but I only share this because it is real...and reality...especially this reality...should not be glossed over.

"'If you cry out, we will kill you," one of them told Dina. So she kept quiet as, one by one, the five men raped her. Then they held her down as one of them shoved the stick inside her.

When Dina didn’t come home, her father and friends bravely went out to the fields, and there they found her, half dead in the grass. They covered her and carried her back to her home. There was a health center in Kindu, but Dina’s family couldn’t afford to take her there to be treated, so she was cared for only at home. She lay paralyzed in her bed, unable to walk. The stick had broken into her bladder and rectum, causing a fistula, or hole, in the tissues. As a result, urine and feces trickled constantly through her vagina and down her legs. These injuries, rectovaginal and vesicovaginal fistulas, are common in the Congo because of sexual violence”.

Abhorrent. Abominable. Repulsive. Monstrous. Words in the thesaurus are lacking.

And yet, this happens. Every single day. To literally tens of thousands of women.

I wept unabashedly when I first read about this. I weep as I write this.

A few weeks ago I saw the Pulitizer Prize winning play "Ruined" by Lynn Nottage put on by the Obsidian Theatre Company. I wept when I watched that too. It tells the tale of Mama Nadi, a businesswoman operating a brothel during the civil war, and the women who, once beloved wives, mothers, and daughters but because of the shame and stigma rape has brought upon them, now serve as prostitutes in the brothel. It is heartbreaking and agonizing to see these stories acted out in front of you knowing that somewhere out there someone has experienced exactly that. But seeing the resilience of these women is just as gripping as the atrocities that they face.

The problem is nowhere near being resolved. In fact, Doctors Without Borders says it has already treated more than 200 people for rape since January of this year. It's only the beginning of March.

I don't have the answers to this problem. I don't think even the highest international bodies have the answer to this problem. And if they do, there's always that tricky business of implementation and execution. But I don't know how I (we) could just sit and do nothing while lives are ravaged in this incredibly inhuman way. So what then? I simply ask you (read: beg you) to learn more. Educate yourself on this issue that is depleting one of our greatest resources. And then talk about it! Let's start participating in this dialogue that is so very, very necessary. Let's not shy away from the complexity and monstrosity that is this reality. Think of your mothers, your grandmothers, your daughters, your sisters, your wives...can you imagine this happening to them...to us? I don't want to. But it's happening. Far away as it may seem, it's happening to somebody's grandmother, somebody's mother, somebody's daughter, somebody's wife.

Luck, chance, whatever it is you call it, has put us in a position of privilege. Let's do something worthwhile with it... _______________________________________________________________________________

To learn more about sexual violence in the DRC and around the world, here's a short list of organizations, campaigns, and news sources that provide support and information about this issue:

UN Action Against Sexual Violence in Conflict: unites the work of 13 UN entities with the goal of ending sexual violence in conflict.

Soldiers Who Rape, Commanders Who Condone: A report from Human Rights Watch on sexual violence and military reform in the DRC.

Heal Africa: With a hospital in Goma, Congo, Heal Africa works to repair fistulas and tends to rape victims.

Stop Rape in the DRC: a global campaign calling attention to the wide-scale atrocities committed every day against women and girls in eastern DRC. The Campaign is initiated by the women of eastern DRC, V-Day and UNICEF, representing UN Action Against Sexual Violence in Conflict.

The Fistula Foundation: The Fistula Foundation raises awareness and funding for fistula treatment, prevention and education programs worldwide.

One by One: One by One has the singular mission of contributing to the elimination of fistula worldwide through programs of treatment and prevention.

V-Day A global movement and series of consciousness-raising events to end violence against girls and women.

Half the Sky

I just recently finished reading Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl Wu Dunn’s brilliantly written ‘Half the Sky’ and let me tell you right now that that was probably the single most agonizing book I have read to date. You don’t know how many times I had to put it down, weep a little, cuss a lot, and pick it up again just to repeat the process. Called ‘Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide”, the book covers the often underreported issues of the sex slave trade, the crippling poverty that the world’s women share a disproportionate amount of (around 70% to be exact), maternal mortality (which takes a woman’s life every minute), and the misogynistic customs and traditions that so terribly degrade women to beneath human status.

To say that the stories presented in the book are horrific would be the greatest understatement ever made, but at the same time, this should not be overshadowed by the fact that the stories also offer a profound, albeit distant, glimmer of hope. Yes, the stories are, at times, excruciatingly graphic, but to see how these women pull themselves out of what may just be the worst conditions known to the human race, is beyond inspiring. Kristof and WuDunn take us on such a raw and real journey connecting us with equally raw and real women from all continents of the world (you can read a few of their stories here). While reading the book, I was taken to the two extremes of the emotional and mental spectrum...from being repulsed by the despicable savagery our world's women must endure to being so moved and inspired by their sheer bravery, determination, and resilience.

Honestly, it’s a travesty that women around the world have to suffer these incredible injustices, but what’s even more tragic is that a lot of the people in our priveleged Western world don't really know about it. Okay sure, they (we) may have a vague idea, but it’s this abstract and distant fact that we come to simply accept and forget. I keep urging (pleading, begging) my family and friends to please read this book. But it’s hard because it deals with seriously tough issues and sometimes, it’s easier to just ignore it or sweep these realities under the rug because well, it doesn’t directly affect us...or at least not visibly so. And I totally understand that. The topics discussed in the book aren’t sexy and it’s not exactly the kind of book you want to curl up to at the end of a long day and fall asleep to. But it’s all too important not to read and I just can't stress that enough. If I could shout it out on the rooftops, believe me I would!! Melinda Gates put it best when she described the book as "...both a brutal awakening and an unmistakable call to action".

So please, if you consider yourself even remotely human (which I sincerely hope you do), please, please, read Half the Sky. And once you do, believe me, it will change you...