“Has the world forgotten about us?” These words from Fatima, a Darfuri rape survivor, still haunt me.
It was the summer of 2006 and I was collecting interviews as part of my research-based activism with 25 Darfuri genocide survivors at a refugee camp in Chad. In heat that a fellow researcher, who was collecting weather information, measured at 130 degrees, women waited for hours to share their horrific stories about 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 a professor at Penn State. The weight of the women’s sorrow and the need to “do something” about the genocide in Darfur was overwhelming—and paralyzing. My own reaction was baffling and new to me. I had never experienced such a loss for words and action in more than two decades of activism and organizing around social justice issues. 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 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 now inexcusable.
I stepped up my role in the anti-genocide and Save Darfur movement, giving talks in living rooms, synagogues, high schools, church basements, and on college campuses. I received a Carl Wilkens Fellowship with the Genocide Intervention Network (now United to End Genocide) that helped expand my activist networks, opportunities, and knowledge about other crises, including rape in the Democratic Republic of Congo. It was during this time that I came across the phrase “worst place in the world to be a woman” in reference to DRC. How could that possibly be, I wondered, given the horrific stories I had heard from the women in Chad? How could Congo be worse?
There should never be a contest over which conflict-ridden region has the most women with brutal tales. But it was clear that my work shouldn’t end in Chad. Still mulling over the provocative but problematic label of “worst place in the world to be a woman,” I realized I had to go to Congo.
The author holds an infant at Panzi Hospital. On her latest trip there, De Reus conducted focus groups to learn what survivors felt about the children they were giving birth to due to rape. De Reus says the mother of this particular 8-day-old was struggling to accept the baby; she does not appear in the photo to protect her identity for safety reasons.
To read the rest of the article, please click over to Women Under Siege.