Jane Mukunilwa and Christine Schuler Deschryver

Turning survivors into leaders

Jane Mukunilwa and Christine Schuler Deschryver are two of the driving forces behind City of Joy in Bukavu (Democratic Republic of the Congo, DRC). In this centre of recovery and healing, women and girls who are survivors of rape and gender violence during the conflict in the DRC are transformed into community leaders. Mukunilwa and Schuler Deschryver are special guests at the Movies that Matter Festival 2018.

Christine Schuler Deschryver, director of the City of Joy centre, still remembers the day she became ‘a radical fighter’: ‘In 2000, I was in my office when a woman ran in with a baby girl, 18 months old [...] the baby had been raped. She died in my car on the way to [the] hospital. I ran into the cathedral with the dead baby in my arms, shouting at God.’

It is estimated that over half a million women and girls have been raped in the ongoing conflict in the DRC, where rape is used as a weapon of war by both government forces and armed militias. The victims are often left by their husbands and cast out by their communities.

This led Congolese human rights activist Christine Schuler Deschryver to establish the City of Joy centre in 2011, together with gynaecologist  Denis Mukwege – a leading expert on the treatment of violated women – and playwright and activist Eve Ensler (The Vagina Monologues). ‘The Congolese women don’t want to be beggars forever,’ Schuler Deschryver says about the reason to set up City of Joy. ‘They want to be empowered and take their destinies into their hands.’

Pain into power
At City of Joy, women who are often very traumatized learn self-defence, tell their stories and ultimately come to love and accept themselves. After a 6-month programme they ‘graduate’ with the essential ingredients to participate in their communities again, but this time as leaders. Jane Mukunilwa graduated from the first ever City of Joy class and now belongs to the centre’s programme staff. ‘It is a place where joy, self-confidence, love and hope are regained after a period of trauma, isolation, despair and uncertainty,’ she says.

As she recounts in the inspiring documentary City of Joy, Mukunilwa was gang raped and tied to a tree for many weeks. She became pregnant and had to give birth while she was kidnapped a second time. Her baby died. With her story, she now teaches women to use what they went through ‘as a tool of revolution’: ‘I serve as a model example of women who have turned their pain into power, and who are committed to teaching other women to know and demand their rights and duties.’ And that’s exactly what Christine Schuler Deschryver envisioned all along: ‘When you start believing in people, and value them, they give the best they have in them.’