Next week I am embarking on a journey to climb the world's highest mountain, Mt. Everest. It will be my sixth summit in a quest to climb the highest mountain on each continent. As I prepare myself mentally for this difficult and daunting challenge, I reflect in amazement at the simple event that catapulted me to this unlikely pursuit.
I am a normal, American woman -- hardworking professional, 30 years old, mildly athletic, socially conscious. My journey started with a magazine article I read late one night a few years ago. It was about the plight of women in war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). In a country where decades of civil war has left more than 5 million dead and millions more displaced, women -- then and now -- are suffering from widespread sexual violence on a level I hadn't thought possible. I read that story and I knew I had to take action.
In 2007, I launched Climb Take Action/7 Summits Challenge, a campaign dedicated to empowering women like those I read about in DRC. I was determined to climb the highest mountain on each continent to raise money and awareness for these women, and give a voice to those who might not have one. Today, five of those mountains are behind me. Soon I will be tackling Everest, a feat I never would have dreamed was possible for me. And with each summit, I can hear those women's voices getting stronger and being heard by more and more people.
I created this campaign to help DRC because the prevalence of sexual violence there is unlike anywhere else -- by some estimates, tens of thousands a year. Savage acts of rape are epidemic in the eastern DRC; victims include babies younger than one and women older than 80. Rape is destroying these women's lives, their families, entire communities. As a woman who lives in a country full of resources and opportunity, I find it difficult to imagine being in the shoes of one of these women, facing the physical and emotional pain of their ordeal -- and then having to find a way to survive in its aftermath.
It is because of them that I climb.
I am often asked if the money that I raise through this campaign will have any real, long-term impact. To this I answer, "It only takes one." I understand that this campaign alone will not stop the rapes in eastern DRC, but it will help bring more attention to this long-ignored issue and deliver medical care and psychological services for survivors.
Two years ago, I had the privilege of visiting Congolese refugee camps on the Uganda border with the humanitarian organization International Medical Corps. Before this trip, I had never met a rape survivor. The women were extremely grateful for our visit, and most wanted to share their stories.
I met a 5-year-old girl who had been raped. I heard one woman describe how she was raped three times, and watched as her children were murdered. The women I met had endured horrific experiences, and were now trying to recover, provide for their families, build some sort of future. For many of these women, even having a future was something to appreciate and marvel, which would not have been possible without the work of International Medical Corps and other NGOs working there.
After telling her story, one of the women said to me, "You are my sister, my friend."
It is easy to feel you'll never be able to make a difference. But I am hoping with this campaign to peel away the numbers and statistics and focus on the living and breathing individual women in DRC and how we can make their lives better.
The women and girls I met at the refugee settlement have hope because they are receiving the type of support they need to rebuild. There are other signs of progress. Just last month, ten soldiers were held accountable for an incident of mass rape, found guilty of crimes against humanity. Among them was Lt. Col. Mutuare Daniel Kibibi, who was sentenced to 20 years in prison.
Eve Ensler's City of Joy, a revolutionary new community for women survivors of gender-based violence in Bukavu, DRC, opened last month and will provide as many as 180 Congolese women a year with an opportunity to benefit from group therapy, self-defense training, comprehensive sexuality education, economic empowerment, storytelling, dance, theater, ecology, and horticulture. This too is huge progress.
It's time to focus on the positive, to focus on one at a time, to focus on regaining strength. On April 1, I head to Everest for a two-month journey to the top of the world (8,848 m/29,029 ft). Before I started this campaign, I could barely run a mile. Today, I have successfully climbed five of the seven summits and when I am done with this campaign, I hope to become the 38th woman in the world to complete all seven.
There is a parable that for me is the essence of what this campaign is about:
-Hawaiian parable by Naka Nathaniel
A man goes out to the beach and sees that it is covered with starfish that have been washed up in the tide. A little boy is walking along, picking them up and throwing them back into the water.
"What are you doing, son?" the man asks. "You see how many starfish there are? You'll never make a difference."
The boy paused thoughtfully, and picked up another starfish and threw it into the ocean. "It sure made a difference to that one," he said.
All proceeds from Climb Take Action go directly to International Medical Corps and VDAY, both reputable and efficient NGOs working diligently to help women and children in DRC. All donations are tax deductible and you can learn more or donate at: www.climbtakeaction.com