Last Thursday morning, I was e-mailed a news report about an 11-month-old baby girl who had died in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) a day after she was raped. As a mother of a six-month-old, my stomach turns thinking about what this baby went through and I can't imagine the suffering of her mother. Here we go again, I think to myself. Another Heart of Darkness with very little for me to do except be depressed and pray that something happens soon to end the hell on earth.
This isn't an isolated incident in the DRC. Rape has become a "weapon of war." Since 1994, the DRC has been wrought by ethnic strife and civil war, touched off by a massive inflow of refugees fleeing the Rwandan genocide. Almost four million people have died as a result of the fighting. All sides in the conflict in Democratic Republic of Congo's North Kivu province are killing and raping civilians and looting on a scale not seen in years.
I am especially moved by this story because two years ago I visited a refugee camp with Zainab Salbi, the founder and CEO of Women for Women International in the Lake Kivu region near Goma. I can literally picture the displaced men, women and children's hauntingly beautiful faces.
Thursday night I was worlds away from the DRC seated at a gala dinner with my husband at Chelsea Piers in New York City for Women for Women International in a fancy dress, with abundant red wine and a chicken dinner.
Despite my guilt partaking in what most people who live on less that $2 a day would consider a luxury, I love attending their events because they create and foster community in the deepest way. This gala was no exception and it was, bar none, the most amazing and hopeful rubber chicken dinner imaginable.
The heart and soul of Women for Women International's program is sponsorship. For $27.00 a month a woman in the United States is paired with a woman in a war torn country: Rwanda, the DRC, Afganistan, Iraq, Nigeria, Kosovo, Bosina Herzegovina, Southern Sudan or Columbia. This sponsorship helps women who have survived rape and war to learn a trade or start a business, understand her rights, gain back her dignity, and heal. The program doesn't just stop at the money -- the heart and soul comes through the letters the women write each other.
When Liz Hammer, a mother of two in Boston, signed up with Women for Women International's sponsorship program, she was matched with Violette Mutegwamaso, herself a mother of a boy and girl in Rwanda.
Violette's life was turned upside down in 1994 when civil war broke out between the Hutu and Tutsi. When violence threatened to erupt in her small village, she was forced to flee with her two children to a nearby church. But instead of providing sanctuary, the church was attacked by machete-wielding militia. By pretending to be dead, Violette and her children managed to be among a handful of survivors of a massacre that claimed 700 lives.
Violette found herself struggling to support her family on meager earnings from farming other people's land, but it was not enough. Medicine, clothes and schooling were out of the question.
With support from Liz, however, Violette was able to invest in a fledgling business harvesting sorghum and brewing the grain into drinks. The two women began exchanging letters. Violette reported on the growth of her business, which expanded to buying sorghum from other local farmers and growing beans as well to feed her family and sell for profit. Soon she was hiring other women in the community to work the fields. She applied for a bank loan to route a water pipe into her village so women would not have to walk for hours with heavy jugs to reach a water tap.
Thursday night Violette and Liz's lives where no longer worlds apart. As a surprise to all 500 of us, these two women, worlds apart, we're united. As they embraced there wasn't a dry eye in the place.
Liz said of Violette, "I think about her all the time, in fact, on a daily basis. I just had my second girl, and between her and my two-year-old toddler, it just seems like a lot. I sometimes feel overwhelmed and there is too much to handle. But then I think of Violette, and women like her. What I have gone through is so little in comparison to her. She has provided me with tremendous perspective that you can't get from just reading an article or reading a news story."
Women for Women International then asked the audience to help sponsor the 300 women currently on the waiting list for the program. At last count, the crowd has responded with more than 465 new sponsorships.
This story has important lessons for me. Thursday morning I woke up to a story that ripped hope from heart. Thursday night my heart was so full of hope that I knew what to do about those women in DRC -- I responded by sponsoring one of them in honor of the nameless 11-month-old baby girl. My sister will not be nameless to me. We'll get to know each other through letters. We'll give each other hope.
Women for Women International understands that we all need something personal and relatively easy to do beyond just giving money. They understand that our deepest desire, especially women, is to be part of a community bigger than ourselves -- to connect personally. The women and girls being raped in the DRC are counting on us to stay hopeful and keep connected.