Has the World Forgotten about Us? The Making of a Scholar-Activist

by Lee Ann De Reus, Associate Professor, Human Development & Family Studies and Women's, Gender and Sexuality Studies, Pennsylvania State University-Altoona; Co-founder, Panzi Foundation USA
NCFR Report

Has the world forgotten about us?

—Fatima, a Darfuri rape survivor

These words from Fatima still haunt me.

It was the summer of 2006, and I was at a refugee camp in Chad collecting interviews from 25 Darfuri genocide survivors as part of my research-based activism. In 120-plus degree heat, women waited for hours to share horrific accounts of attacks on their villages. I struggled hard to choke back tears as women spoke of rape and of their children who were killed by the Janjaweed paramilitary forces in Darfur, often before their eyes. That trip was a turning point for me.

I felt guilt at first, returning to a privileged, comfortable life in the U.S. as an associate professor. The weight of the women's sorrow and the need to "do something" about the genocide in Darfur was overwhelming and paralyzing. This was also frustrating. In more than two decades of activism and organizing around social justice issues, I had never experienced such a loss for words and action. I felt a tremendous responsibility to honor these survivors and act on their behalf, but how? As I immersed myself in the transcribed interviews, guilt gave way to the realization that my privilege and my skills as an academic could be a force for positive change. "I was able to leave Chad," I kept thinking. "These women face daily life in a refugee camp." My inaction was inexcusable.

I stepped up my role in the anti-genocide and Save Darfur movement, sharing the words of the Darfuri women in living rooms, synagogues, high schools, church basements, and on college campuses—all the while fulfilling the teaching, research, and service expectations of my university. I received a Carl Wilkens Fellowship with the Genocide Intervention Network (now called United to End Genocide) that helped expand my activist networks, opportunities, and knowledge about other crises, including sexualized violence in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. During this same time my scholarship evolved as I collaborated with colleagues Libby Balter Blume and April Few in feminist family theory development and delved into critical race feminisms, privilege, intersectionality, and Whiteness. This brought a new perspective to my work and gave me the additional tools and frameworks I needed to further bridge my scholarship with my activism.

My experiences in Chad also gave me much pause and personal insight. I learned that I have a capacity to work effectively under extremely difficult conditions and in the face of harsh realities. That trip tested every physical, psychological, and emotional limit of my being. Carl Wilkens (the only American to stay in Rwanda and save hundreds of lives during the1994 genocide), the Darfuri women, and feminist scholarship inspired the courage I needed to press on with my advocacy work.

As my activism for vulnerable populations strengthened, I became increasingly unsettled by reports of violence in Congo, a place labeled as the "worst place in the world to be a woman." Nearly 6 million people had died over the past 20 years due to armed conflicts and a failed state unwilling to care for its citizens. I couldn't gain access to Chad because of a deteriorating security situation, so I planned a small qualitative research project to study the stigma associated with rape in Congo. Like the women who fled the genocide in Darfur, Sudan, women in Congo were suffering extreme sexualized violence. They also have a voice, but it seemed the world wasn't listening.

The study took place at Panzi Hospital, which was founded by Dr. Denis Mukwege, now a world-renowned Congolese gynecologist/obstetrician, who has treated more than 20,000 rape survivors since the hospital opened in 1999. With a staff of about 370, including 40 physicians, Panzi provides world-class care for more than 18,000 patients a year in an environment characterized by continued violence; poverty; and a lack of basic services such as consistent water, electricity, sanitation, and passable roads. A particularly unique aspect of the hospital is Maison Dorcas, an after-care facility for survivors of gender-based violence.

After being discharged from Panzi Hospital, many women are unable to return to their homes for a variety of reasons, such as needed follow-up care, conflict-related displacement from their communities, or family rejection due to the heavy social stigma associated with rape. At Maison Dorcas women can extend their stay and receive counseling for the treatment of trauma, legal assistance for prosecution of perpetrators, literacy instruction, and skill-based training, all designed to enhance a woman's ability to heal, provide for herself and her family, and take an active role in her community.

My time at Panzi was transformative. It was the summer of 2009, and I was there for 3 weeks. I was able to interview 28 women about their experiences of gender-based violence, the resulting stigma, how they cope, and their hopes for the future. My goal was to record their experiences to support data-driven scholarship and advocacy work around the issues of rape and conflict. While there, I met 14-year-old Mateso, who was one of more than 1,900 recipients of medical treatment at Panzi that year for injuries due to sexualized violence. She was too young to participate in the study because she was under 18, but despite her ineligibility she was the first to arrive at our interview site 3 days in a row. I quickly realized that this determined young lady had something to say. Not wanting to deny her sense of agency, I sat and I listened. She shared of unspeakable horrors that belied her confident demeanor, ease, and quick smile. Each of the women I interviewed had similar accounts. When I asked Mateso why she thought it important to share her experience with me, she said, "I tell you my story because so many people don't know. I want you to tell others."

Once back in the U.S. I found myself again sharing the words and stories of survivors. I would meet with members of Congress, give research presentations and a TEDX talk, and speak on college campuses and at the Oslo Freedom Forum. Overall, my goal then, as it is now, was to reach as many people as possible about what is happening to women and families in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in addition to places such as Sudan and Syria. Every time I gave a presentation, generous individuals and groups opened their wallets to donate, but there was no mechanism to make a tax-deductible donation to support the hospital and its programs. As Dr. Mukwege, Panzi, and the crisis in Congo gained visibility in the media, major nonprofits, aid organizations, and philanthropists wanted to help, but simple communication with Panzi and access were extremely challenging. I realized quickly that these were immense missed opportunities.

Fueled by my passion to make a difference with Congolese and not for them, I teamed up with Dr. Mukwege after that first trip to establish Panzi Foundation USA in 2010. The mission of our organization, its Board of Directors, and staff is to raise awareness about the challenges in eastern Congo, engage in strategic advocacy to end violence against women, and provide grants to Panzi Hospital to heal women and restore lives (www.panzifoundation.org). Over the past 5 years we have tripled the number of women accessing supportive housing, job skills training, and reintegration services at Maison Dorcas and helped fund the completion of a new building that accommodates 200 survivors in these programs. We created a successful solar energy pilot project; upgraded the building, playground, and educational materials at the hospital children's center; established a fair-trade coffee project; and initiated an innovative music therapy program for survivors that is in progress. In January of this year we at Panzi Foundation USA finally hired our first two full-time staff, an executive director and a media coordinator.

I travel to Panzi Hospital one or more times a year to conduct research, check in on programs, and lend my academic skills to a new research center established at the hospital. As a privileged individual it is my responsibility to step up as a witness, messenger, and advocate for women like Fatima and Mateso. Through the amplification of indigenous voices, we can bring much needed attention to Congo and provide a more nuanced understanding of the country's complex realities as we work to restore dignity, hope, and a secure future for Congolese women and their families.

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