Turning Pain Into Power: Congo’s City of Joy

Nov 13th, 2014 | By | Category: Reproductive Rights/Women's Rights

By Suzanne York, www.howmany.org

There is an African proverb that says “if you want to go fast, go alone.  If you want to go far, go together.”

Last month, at the Bioneers conference, Eve Ensler (yes, that Eve Ensler of Vagina Monologues fame), gave a stirring and emotional talk about her work with women in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), and her plans to go far with them – and all women – together.

[photo credit: www.vday.org]

In particular, Ensler talked about women and violence and her role supporting the City of Joyin the Congo, a community for women survivors of violence.  The DRC is a country in great need of healing its victims of war and gender violence stemming from conflict.

Why Focus on the Congo?

The UN has called the country the center of rape as a weapon of war, where civilians have been drawn into the conflict (which began in 1996), and has been driven by a weak government and rich mineral resources, often in remote areas.

A 2011 study published in the American Journal of Public Health found that 1,152 women are raped every day in the DRC – a rate equal to 48 women per hour. According to the organization Freedom from Torture, sexual violence in Congo is often regarded as a by-product of fighting, with atrocities blamed on soldiers and rebels – but rape is also rife beyond the country’s conflict zones.

The UK Guardian reported that there have been many reports and witness accounts of the gang rape of young girls and elderly women by armed militia. Because of the stigma of rape, many married women find themselves abandoned by their husbands and families.

Beyond the severe psychological impact, sexual and gender violence leaves many survivors with genital lesions, traumatic fistulae, severed and broken limbs, unwanted pregnancies, and sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV.


The City of Joy website states that this “project” was “conceived, owned, and run by local Congolese.” Since June 2011, it has been “healing women from their past trauma through therapy and life skills programming while providing them with the essential ingredients needed to move forward in life – love and community.”

The underlining purpose of City of Joy is to teach women about rights and provide them therapy to heal from trauma. Ensler said they arrive as victims and leave as survivors and leaders.

Every six months 90 women come to the City of Joy and must pass on to their communities what they have learned during their time at the center.  They are given $100 and a cell phone to seed projects when they return home.  Some women have started farms and other businesses, some have gone to school.  Over 400 women have “graduated” thus far.

If there is a theme, it is one of turning pain to power.  Another is of connection to the land.  Ensler believes that there is something very powerful between the healing of women and the healing of land.  The City of Joy has a sustainable farm, known as V-World Farm, where the women grow carrot, cassava, corn, tomatoes and more, and also raise pigs and maintain a tilapia pond.

Woman farmer at V-World Farm [photo credit: www.vday.org]

Ensler stressed that City of Joy is run by Congolese.  She believes this is a template for what is possible in the world, and that “we can build joy in the middle of madness.”

10 Guiding Principles of the City of Joy

Like all communities, the City of Joy has its own culture, one that is grounded in love and respect for each other and the unique experiences each woman brings to the table.  The 10 Guiding Principles of the City of Joy are:

  1. Tell the truth
  2. Stop waiting to be rescued; take initiative
  3. Know your rights
  4. Raise your voice
  5. Share what you’ve learned
  6. Give what you want the most
  7. Feel and tell the truth about what you’ve been through
  8. Use it to fuel a revolution
  9. Practice kindness
  10. Treat your sisters’ life as if it were your own

The 10 Guiding Principles should be a blueprint for all of humanity.   And the goals of the City of Joy – healing, surviving and empowerment – are going to be needed as we move further into the 21st Century and face immense global challenges that could traumatize us all.

Suzanne York is a senior writer with the Institute for Population Studies.

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