“What do you wish for your daughters,” I asked and one woman sitting across from me shot her hand up immediately, “School!” she said. “We would like our daughters to go to school and sit side by side with boys and be educated, and know their worth.”
I saw all the other women nodding their heads and murmuring in strong agreement. One of them said, “In our culture, they used to say that studies for girls don’t go past the kitchen, but we are changing that.”
Then something happened, completely unplanned. The women had shared so much with me and it had affected me more than I realized. My mouth just opened and I began to share with them how someone very close to me was raped at the age of eight. Though now a much older woman, she clearly lives with the unresolved, unaddressed pain of that experience to this day. Although this woman has fought for her comfortable life in the United States and doesn’t lack for material things, I wish she had had a group of women like them to support her and to help her.
The women shook their heads and sucked air through their clenched teeth in anger. They started talking among themselves. The president of the group turned to me and explained, “We had a case of an eight-year-old who was brought in yesterday. Please tell your friend we want her to know that she is not the only one, and that she is not alone.” The other women nodded. “When we speak here together, it reminds us of the wounds we have inside, but we know being here together rebuilds us.”
I was strongly affected by their words. That night, I returned to Bukavu and emailed a friend back home to tell her briefly about my day. She wrote back, “I don’t know if I ever told you this, but it happened to me. It took me years to call it what it was and I still struggle with it.”
Completely shocked, I stared at my computer screen for a long time. Finally, I recovered enough to compose a reply: I found myself typing the very words of support I had heard from the women I’d just spent two days with in South Kivu.
As I hit “send,” I pictured these Congolese women – some dressed in crisp, colorful African cloth others in faded and torn clothing – all gathered in a mud house providing strength to a woman across the globe in business clothes sitting in an office. Women worlds apart in distance yet so close in experience. They have different color skin, they speak different languages, they eat different food, they’ve walked different paths of life. Yet their laughter is the same, their struggle is the same, their strength and resilience is the same.
“We have been asking ourselves how can we be heard, how can we tell the world what we have to say and what we can do,” the president of the women’s group told me before I left. “People come to help us during wartime and leave, but no one knows the usefulness of women after war. “
“We’re a small organization,” she said. “But we mobilize big authorities and we mobilize our communities. We sow the seeds of change.”
Her words and my visit impressed upon me the connectedness of ‘who’ we are. The ‘where’ in many ways is only a technicality. Violence against women is a global issue: How many of us know a woman who has experienced violence? Further yet, how many of us don’t know that we know a woman who has experienced violence?
And for this global problem is a global solution: Women, like this courageous group in Congo, standing together not as victims, not as survivors, but as teachers – asking to be heard, demanding change.
Aisha Bain is the Advocacy/Program Advisor for the International Rescue Committee in the Women’s Protection and Empowerment Unit. She works with women and girls in the Democratic Republic of Congo and refugees in the US, and is focused on giving them the tools they need to become leaders within their own communities, and driving forward solutions to end the violence in their communities.