Cross-posted with permission from Her Blueprint.
This week, millions of people in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), a war-ravaged African country, voted in their second ever presidential and parliamentary election.
With a population of over 70 million and one of the highest occurrences of rape in the world, the New York Times reported fear of violent outbreaks due to Congo’s elections because of fraudulent politics and, essentially, DRC’s reverse development. “This year the United Nations ranked it dead last of the 187 countries on the Human Development Index.”
The Democratic Republic of Congo is also known to be one of the worst places on earth to be a woman. In mid-May, a study in the American Journal of Public Health, found that 400,000 females aged 15-49 were raped over a 12-month period in 2006 and 2007. The greatest numbers of rapes were found in DRC’s North Kivu. There an average of 67 women out of 1,000 have been raped. At least once. That’s 48 women an hour.
Imagine. Having to go into a forest. The only place. To find food. For your children. Imagine. Emerging raped. Not once. Not twice. Every time. Any time. Whenever. Imagine. Returning home. And being raped. By your partner.
According to the Christan Science Monitor, this is daily life for Congolese women. “Rape is becoming part of the culture,” said Michael Van Rooyen, the director of Harvard’s Humanitarian Initiative and an expert on rape in the Congo.
One Man’s Journey for Congolese Women
For two years, Londoner Chris Jackson has lived in absolute dedication to sport, not just as a human rights advocate but also as an athlete and spokesperson for Congolese rape victims. He’s completed myriad heroic athletic acts to raise awareness of the horror women in Congo live every single day of their lives. Rampant and repeated sexual violence. Rape as a weapon of war.
Chris shares, “Basically, I’ve spent the last two years undertaking a few different challenges to bring the conflict in the DRC to the attention of people by running 12 marathons in 12 months. At the end of all the running, I damaged my Achilles and decided to focus on my arms instead. This led me to take part in one of the longest kayak races in the world, the Yukon River Quest. 500 miles of unsupported kayaking in less than 72 hours.”
In support of Women for Women International and Run for Congo Women, overall last year Jackson raced a marathon a month, including one in Congo, to ensure our world is cognizant of stark truths:
Despite the signing of international peace agreements, a deadly 15 year war continues in DRC. International organizations estimate that since 1998, 5.4 million people have died in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The death toll is the equivalent of an Asian Tsunami every 6.5 months. A September 11 every 2.5 days. And nearly half of the deaths in the Congo are of children under the age of five.
Now, try to conjure how many women and children have been raped throughout that war.
Recently, Cosmopolitan magazine honored Chris Jackson as Cosmo’s Ultimate Man of the Year. In his acceptance speech, Jackson shared of why he remains dedicated to Congolese women:
Many women in the Congo have spent their life running from fear, suffered the cruelest attacks, but still get up in the morning and remain strong and work, work to pay for their child to go to school. It should be those beautiful, courageous, and resilient women that are recognised for their determination. Women like Solange, Alice, and Generose.
After receiving the award, Jackson completed the 2011 ING New York City Marathon in 2 hours and 55 minutes.
One Woman’s Journey for Women’s Health
Racing the NYC Marathon that same day was also world-renowned supermodel, founder of Every Mother Counts (EMC), and director of No Woman, No Cry, Christy Turlington Burns who began advocating for women’s health after she faced complications during her own pregnancy. While Burns completed her first ever marathon alongside a team of nine EMC runners, she also challenged moms across America to run a 5K in ode to the harrowing statistics women face during childbirth in developing countries:
Every 90 seconds a woman dies from complications of childbirth and 90 percent of these deaths are preventable.
Every Mother Counts shares:
A 5K is less than the average distance a pregnant woman in the developing world must travel to receive the basic health care she needs to deliver her baby. And often that is simply too far to walk for a woman who is 9 months pregnant, in labor, and has no access to transportation.
With over 100 participants, Every Mother Counts 5K initiative shows that women everywhere support global maternal health. In fact, that is precisely what inspired Burns as she ran. “Running my first NYC marathon was truly a life changing experience for me,” said Burns:
Throughout the entire race and especially as I crossed the finish line, I thought about the spotlight our Every Mother Counts team cast on maternal health leading up to the marathon Sunday and all those moms for whom distance is perhaps the biggest barrier they may face in accessing the critical care they deserve. Our hope is that this marathon and 5K Run/Walk was the kick-off to many more races we will organize around the country to advocate on behalf of the health and well-being of girls and women.
That is Their World, Not Ours
In human rights, the moment they becomes us means achieving an understanding of why we all matter. Together. Sometimes this happens on a grand scale.
Over the weekend, Americans celebrated Thanksgiving, a hallmark of historical revisionism but a holiday that lends to thankfulness and, yes, the tradition of watching football. Around this time last year, I stood in the press box of the 2500th Marathon held in Athens, Greece to honor endurance running, its tradition, but also to acknowledge how story forges both the inspiration and culture of my sport.
At the time, Greece was already mired in overt economic crisis but the legacy of Greek war messenger Pheidippides, who died trying to deliver news about the Battle of Marathon, brought swells of devoted athletes from all over the world to race in honor of his trek. As I wrote about the marathon’s point of origin 2500 years ago, I also shared that every year for the past 28 the Athens Classic Marathon is run in memory of Grigoris Lambrakis, a brilliant athlete, scientist, politician, and pacifist who in April 1963 helped organize the Greece Pacifist Movement. As an advocate of social justice, Lambrikis had participated in myriad international meetings on peace, yet his life ended shortly after a march in May 1963 due to deadly beatings.
The recent acknowledgment of Penn State’s rape culture—forged under the guise of a foundation for already vulnerable children—further disquiets any culture, community, or country worldwide that allows for the rape of our world’s most vulnerable. Once silenced by the powers that surrounded them and suffocated their voices, victims may now potentially gain justice, or at least have a slight chance toward achieving it. The fact is, our entire world must strengthen both women and children’s health and our access to justice to increase humanity’s well-being. Ours.
As Congolese (and Egyptians) cast votes, they speak out for all rights. And, to every woman or child who struggles to find and achieve health and safety, I say: we have borne enough. For far too long.
Take part in a 5K for Girls on the Run International, an organization preparing girls for a lifetime of healthy respect and living through running.