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.