Tuesday, 14 July 2009

The Women of the Congo

Posted by Tania Kindersley.

Yesterday I wrote a jolly little piece about mild grumpiness. Today, I got a call that reminded me I had nothing to be grumpy about. A charming man called Patrick telephoned from Actionaid to talk to me about the women of the Congo.

I have supported Actionaid for years, because they are non-political, non-religious, and do humane and important work wherever they find poverty and deprivation. Initially, I sponsored a little boy called Landing. He sent me pictures of cows and chickens drawn in vivid crayon. I had a fantasy that he would grow up to be a poet or an engineer, all because of my paltry monthly stipend. Then it was decided that it was unfair on the children who were not sponsored, so my money started going to the whole village instead. After a while, I got a photograph of a group of smiling women with a tap. It was a free-standing iron tap, in the middle of a dusty clearing. The women were grinning as if someone had sent them a yacht. They wrote me a letter explaining that they used to have to walk miles every day to get water; now, because of me, they had a tap. I still look at their picture and feel humbled, because they were so delighted by something that I take for granted: clean drinking water. This is the point about charity: it offers the giver something just as important as the recipient. For a very few hundred pounds a year, I get a dazzling reminder of everything for which I should be grateful, and the women of that village get water. It seems to me the most perfect bargain in the world. In some ways, I think they are giving me far more than I can ever give them.

Today, when Patrick called and asked me if I knew about the women of the Congo, I said that I did know about them. They have been haunting me for a long time. In my hopeless, middle-class, first world way, I have not done much about it beyond talk. Sarah and I gave them a fleeting mention in Backwards, but that is not going to change much. They are being raped, systematically, in unbelievable numbers. The government soldiers, the Hutu militias, all sides in the conflict, are raping the women. They rape the children too. A report in the Guardian from last year put the youngest victim at one year old, and the oldest at ninety. The soldiers cut off the women's breasts; they ram rifles up their vaginas; they make them watch while they rape their daughters. A huge number of the women suffer HIV and constant bleeding. Some can no longer walk. Because rape is a huge source of shame in Congolese society, many of the women are shunned by their husbands and families, and find themselves with nowhere to go. So, yes, I know about the women of the Congo.

Actionaid are launching a new campaign for them. I accepted Patrick's polite and rather diffident request to make a monthly payment to it. I did not feel the same sense of a joyful bargain that I get with the women and the tap. The suffering is of an order of magnitude that makes my pathetic donation seem almost insulting. I feel very small and very insignificant. But if enough people can find, even in these cash-strapped times, a few pounds a month, Actionaid can go in and help. Patrick seemed quite optimistic. I asked what response he was getting. 'Oh,' he said, 'you know people are very understanding. People are very good.' He paused. 'It's very rewarding work for me,' he said.

This is not a crusading blog. I don't want to hector you with stories of human misery. But the Congolese women don't get much press; the UN seems to have abandoned them; the public cannot take that much agony and degradation day after day, and so, in a way, it is easier to forget. It is a local difficulty in a far away country of which we know nothing. I am writing this because I think that we should never forget.




  1. So glad you posted about the women of the Congo. Having worked with and for a good many charities, large and small, over the past 30 years or so, I reckon that a post straight from the heart must count as one the most effective ways of conveying these vital messages to the wider world.

    Every so often, I too write about the situation of women in one or other of the most economically deprived - and frequently most dangerous - parts of the world. These posts don't always attract a large number of comments but I know, from the number and location of the hits they receive, that they are being read in many different countries. However, it's always encouraging when someone says: "I didn't know about this." And then tells you that they are going to help, in some way or another.

  2. 60GoingOn16 - what a lovely comment, thank you so much. I am always a little afraid of doing these very serious posts, thinking that a blog should be a light, amusing thing. So I am very glad that you were glad I wrote it.

  3. I would have thought a benefit of blogs is to bring - as 60goingon16 says - wider issues to attentive readers of like mind - much like power of twitter. I certainly think this is an issue that could do with more awareness-raising; the power of the interweb can never be under-estimated. And I shall donate - so that's what the post has done.

  4. Jo - you are an angel. And you are right - the Twitterers are all atwitter. I am always too bashful to post links to my own pieces on Twitter, but lovely LLG did it for me, and now people are retweeting it all over the shop. I only posted it an hour ago and already the incredible response from readers like you has made me feel as if today I did something really worthwhile. Which is a gift more precious than diamonds. Thank you.

  5. Sorry if this is a stupid question, but how do I donate if I'm not British? (I don't have pounds, don't see on the website where I can donate in the U.S.)

  6. Conflicted - so delighted you want to donate. Actionaid have an international site at actionaid.org which should work. Otherwise, you could just Google women of the Congo and you will find quite a lot of organisations that do work there. I endorse Actionaid because I know and trust them, and according to the conversation I had today, I know they are particularly aiming at helping the women and the children. Hope this is of use to you. Thank you so much.

  7. I'm ashamed to say that I have not been aware of this issue. Thank you for such an informative and thought-provoking post.

  8. Reading the stories of some of the victims, in their own words, humbles and horrifies me beyond words. I will head for the actionaid.org international site to pay my paltry bit, but perhaps it is even more important that we keep this issue at the top of everyone's minds.

    And that, Tania, is why it was absolutely the right thing to write about this in your blog.


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