How fashion is helping victims rise from the ruins of sexual violence in this war-torn African country.

In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, women who have suffered unspeakable atrocity are rebuilding their lives – helped by a simple statement of self worth.

By Hugh Francis Anderson
Published 30 Oct 2020, 21:09 GMT, Updated 5 Nov 2020, 04:57 GMT
This catwalk show in Bukavu is more than merely a showcase of fashion. The models are ...

This catwalk show in Bukavu is more than merely a showcase of fashion. The models are survivors of atrocity in one of the most violent countries in the world; their involvement in this show is a reclamation of their womanhood, and a key part of their rehabilitation.  

Photograph by Hugh Francis Anderson

This article contains some disturbing content.

LIGHTS ricochet off the walls in a flurry of reds, yellows and blues, fast-tempo music bursts from large speakers, and a woman steps onto stage. The audience erupts with cheers as she strides down the catwalk. At the end, she places her hands on her waist and pirouettes, the fabric of her dress ruffles and a wide smile firmly seals itself on her face. Her name is Jane Mukunilwa, and she is a graduate of City of Joy – a rehabilitation centre for the victims of rape and sexual violence in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).

In this intimate fashion show in the city of Bukavu, close to the Rwandan border, Jane and other survivors are making an statement of defiance and solidarity against the trauma caused by rape in the conflict-stricken eastern region of the DRC. This show forms the final act in a remarkable metamorphosis. 

A nation torn by war 

Conflict in the DRC has an enduring history. During the late 19thand early 20thcenturies, violence and persecution under the rule of King Leopold II of Belgium took up to 10 million lives. Independence in the 1960s brought unprecedented corruption and greed at the hands of Mobutu. And by the 1990s, ethnic turmoil, civil unrest and economic hunger resulted in two wars, with conflict that is ongoing to this day. It has been estimated that as many as 5.4 million people have died as a result of war in the DRC since conflict began in 1996 – more than any other conflict since World War II. And a gruesome fixture of the wars was the unflinching use of mass rape by rebel groups, government forces and civilians alike. 

Bukavu, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Photograph by Marc Silver

Jane was asleep when the rebels came and dragged her into the forest beside her village in the province of South Kivu in eastern DRC. “When the second war [began] in 1998, women and girls began to experience the atrocities of rape committed by foreign armed groups, particularly the FDLR (Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda),” recalls Jane.

“I was abducted and taken into the forest in 2000, with other girls and women.” she says “Held in sexual slavery, we were raped for two weeks by these executioners.” Tied to a tree, she remained a prisoner for almost two months. “My arms were swollen; I was very weak. I couldn’t even move.” 

Two signs, one (top) a warning to potential offenders – (the text reads 'if you rape, you lose respect for your birth mother – we oppose rape'). Another is a statement of hope for survivors inside City of Joy. 

Photograph by Hugh Francis Anderson

By the time the soldiers found us, three of us had already been slaughtered. I was already one month pregnant,” she says. “When I got home, nobody was there. Every time I tried to sleep, I had nightmares. I was so afraid.”

The ‘worst place to be a woman’

In 2010, Margot Wallström, the UN Secretary General’s Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict, called the DRC “the rape capital of the world.” Its use, particularly in its eastern provinces, has been one of the most prolific weapons of war since 1998. It is reported that almost 40% of women living in eastern DRC have experienced sexual violence, with rates of non-report at the time as high as 75%. Over 1,000 women are raped daily across the DRC.

The second time the rebels kidnapped Jane, she was heavily pregnant with the child of one of her first perpetrators. They beat her stomach with the side of a machete, but after a week of abuse, she broke free. “I had a serious accident while fleeing. I fell from a hill and dropped from the top down to the edge of a river. I lost consciousness and stayed there for at least two days.”

"The black steel gates open with a screech and then there’s peace.”

Photograph by Hugh Francis Anderson

‘Every time I tried to sleep, I had nightmares. I was so afraid.’ Jane Mukunilwa was one of the first graduates of City of Joy, arriving brutalised by violence. She now works on the staff.

Photograph by Marc Silver

When locals found her, her waters had broken. The foetus had died, and was delivered in a state of decay. As a consequence, Jane’s physical health deteriorated rapidly. She was so weak that she was unable to move or speak. In early 2004, via their local church, her neighbours heard that there were people looking for suffering women like Jane and carried her to the airport on their backs, where she was transferred to Panzi Hospital, 300 miles north in Bukavu, South Kivu’s sprawling capital. Jane remained at Panzi hospital for 7 years, where she underwent 9 surgeries, before helping establish City of Joy as a member of the programme’s first class.

Today, almost a decade later, Jane is a fierce leader. She laughs freely, is rarely seen without a smile and radiates warmth, happy to embrace all. “I was living in darkness,” she says. “But I have been transformed.” 

A mural painted on the walls of City of Joy carries a promise of salvation within the walls.

Photograph by Marc Silver

Gates of hope

Through the heavily rutted dirt roads that cut across Bukavu, the gates of City of Joy appear. The thick concrete walls are topped with two feet of barbed wire. It appears more prison than sanctuary. Closer still, a colourful mural is painted on one of the perimeter walls - women are building homes with their own hands, under a painted banner that reads transform pain to power. The black steel gates open with a screech and then there’s peace. Trees and flowers blossom across the courtyard. The smell of freshly cut grass lingers in the air. And the sound of laughter drifts from one of the classrooms nearby. Founded by gynaecologist and Nobel Peace Prize winner Dr. Denis Mukwege, Congolese activist Christine Schuler Deschryver and American playwright and activist V (formerly Eve Ensler) in 2011, City of Joy is a sanctuary for the victims of sexual violence in eastern DRC. 

“The aim of these rapes, used as a weapon of war, is to destroy the victim, her family and her community.”

Dr. Denis Mukwege

A sign displays the face of Dr Denis Mukwege above the streets of Bukavu. Founder of the Panzi hospital for victims of sexual violence in the DRC, Mukwege was jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2018, with Nadia Murad.

Photograph by Hugh Francis Anderson

Dr. Mukwege has been fighting against impunity and for the lives of rape victims in the DRC since the conflicts began. In 1999 he founded Panzi Hospital, 10 minutes from City of Joy, to safeguard the lives of labouring women and their infants. His first victim was not a mother, but a rape victim who had been shot in the genitals. In the years that followed, Dr. Mukwege became a beacon of hope for the victims of rape and was championed by the international community for his work when he received the 2018 Nobel Peace Prize in conjunction with Nadia Murad.

“Babies, girls, young women, mothers, grandmothers… are brutally raped, often publicly and collectively,” he said during his Nobel Peace Prize lecture. “The aim of these rapes used as a weapon of war is to destroy the victim, her family and her community.” Later he continued. “No matter how difficult or hopeless the situation, with determination there is always a light at the end of the tunnel. Victims have the potential to turn their suffering into power. They can become agents of positive change in society.”

“As a human being and a mother, you are never prepared to witness the atrocities that I did.” Christine Shuler Deschryver, who with American playwright Eve Esner founded City of Joy.

Photograph by Hugh Francis Anderson

“Dr. Mukwege is my confidant and I am his, we have shared so many tears,” says Christine Schuler Deschryver, as she sits around a communal table inside one of the many buildings that comprise the City of Joy complex. Behind her, the words If Congo is the worst place to be a woman – City of Joy is for sure the best one are inscribed on the wall.

Tall and athletic, there’s determination and power in the way she presents herself. And it was her time spent with the victims at Panzi Hospital that drove her to pursue change. “As a human being and a mother, you are never prepared to witness the atrocities that I did,” she comments. “I will never forget the babies – being raped, and dying in my arms. To start burying babies that had been raped made many things happen in my head.”

A gardener tends the grounds in City of Joy. Surrounded by barbed wire and security, the complex has become a sanctuary for those who live and work there.

Photograph by Hugh Francis Anderson

2 weeks later, Christine introduced Eve Ensler to the women in the recovery wing of Panzi Hospital. One woman approached them and said, “You are ambassadors. You have travelled the world. Tell people what’s going on here.” Together, Christine and Eve asked the women at Panzi what they could do for them. “We talked about a place where survivors could live in peace and security and tell their stories,” says Jane, who was one of the women. “We crafted how City of Joy should look and suggested what should be done in order to transform the pain of survivors of gender violence.”

Foundations of recovery

90 women aged between 18 and 30 are taken on for each 6-month rotation at City of Joy. “Everything here is built on love,” says Patrick Lwaboshi, City of Joy’s Programme Officer. “We are a leadership programme [and the idea is for each woman] to go back to her village to show how she has changed.” When the women enter the City of Joy programme, they begin the healing process with psychotherapy and have the support of social workers for the duration of the six-month period.

Alongside psychotherapy, a focus is placed upon helping the women build confidence and life skills so that they become economically independent. “We empower [the women] to become self-reliant,” says Patrick. “That’s why we also have courses on general rights, civic and political education and ethics codes, so that when they return [home], they know their rights and are able to demand them.”

In addition, the programme teaches self-defence, nutrition, literacy, computing and communication skills, alongside vocational skills such a sewing, food preparation, soap making and jewellery design. Finally, when the women graduate, City of Joy assist them in transitioning back to their communities. They provide financial aid and telephones so they can keep in communication with the programme staff for continued support. “We do all of this with the vision that each woman transforms her pain into power,” says Patrick. “When she goes back, she asserts herself and shows the community that she has been healed, that she can take initiative and can fly on her own.”

Since 2011, over 1,500 women have successfully graduated from City of Joy. “When I came [here]... I felt acceptance,” recalls Jane. Since 2012 she has been a member of staff at the facility, where she serves as a role model for other survivors. “I always tell them that though our lives have been shady in the past, there are stars and bright lights ahead of us.”

Reclaiming beauty 

And the restorative power of City of Joy has developed further still – through a fabric. Across West Africa, the pagne, a 6-yard roll of wax-print textile that comprises much traditional clothing, is one of the most cherished items a woman can own. Of these fabrics, super-wax, a premier line from Dutch manufacturer Vlisco, is one of the most sought after.

“Every time a woman arrives here, I give them a super-wax pagne,” says Christine. “I can’t wait to do it because of the joy, they have tears, they are on the floor, they’re so happy. We call this pagne-therapy; it’s the best present you can give to a Congolese woman.” In evidence of this, Christine recalls a conversation she had with Jane.

“Jane told me that when she goes to church on Sunday, she is wearing her high heels and her beautiful pagne. She does her best to arrive last so that everyone is sitting, and then she walks straight to the first row knowing that there will be no free seats, just so she can walk back so everybody can see.”

“Everything begins with self-esteem and love.” Designer Gabriela Sanchez y Sanchez de la Barquera first visited City of Joy in 2019. 

Photograph by Hugh Francis Anderson

It was in February 2019 that Vlisco’s CEO David Suddens, and Senior Designer Gabriela Sanchez y Sanchez de la Barquera, visited City of Joy. Vlisco was already donating sewing machines to City of Joy, but they wanted to learn more. Upon entering, they were greeted by one of the programme’s staff, Mama Bachu. Gabriela realised that Mama Bachu was wearing a fabric that she had designed. “They fell into each other’s arms,” says David. Asked if they could create a design to celebrate Dr. Mukwege, what started as one design became five – representing women, the vagina and the DRC. 

“When we arrived there, we saw all of these women who were super cheerful and joyful and warm. I thought, ‘Is there anyone stronger than you?’” recalls Gabriela. “So, as a designer, I thought about how I could communicate that. All five designs have a different representation of what it is like to walk the path from darkness to light. Everything begins with self-esteem and love, and I would like all the women of the world to realise how strong we are.”

Using African designers, the survivors at City of Joy – including Jane Mukunilwa, centre – were both the inspiration and models, for a collection of fashion designs. 

Photograph by Atong Atem

“The women who have suffered the most... They don’t want to talk about tragedy anymore, they want to talk about the future.”

Christine Schuler Deschryver

In 2017, Gabriela created a platform to showcase the next generation of young African designers, and it was through this initiative that the idea for a fashion show came to the fore. The women themselves asked if they could wear the fabrics, with five young female designers asked to create outfits using the fabric. “My involvement in this collection was to share ideas that would bring the message of valuing the vagina,” says Jane. “I wanted to show that though the vagina has been tortured by perpetrators of sexual violence, it is still the body part from which life comes. It is a beautiful flower that should be cherished and protected.”

Darkness into light

In downtown Bukavu on a mild evening in mid-November, guests congregate to witness the fashion show. Politicians, delegates, friends and local benefactors are all here. Backstage, the designers put the finishing touches to their outfits, make-up artists put the final flourishes on the women’s faces and the hum of excitement flows from one woman to the next. And under a cacophony of celebration, the show begins. Next week, these women will travel on to the capital Kinshasa to showcase their collection once again on the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. But it is just the start. 

Children curiously watch preparations for the fashion show in Bukavu. 

Photograph by Marc Silver

Models from City of Joy are prepared for their appearance in the fashion show, Bukavu.

Photograph by Marc Silver

Francine blows a kiss to the audience at the fashion show in Bukavu.

Photograph by Hugh Francis Anderson

“The beginning is here at the City of Joy, where you find the women who have suffered the most. They don’t want to talk about tragedy anymore, they want to talk about the future,” says Christine. “My dream is that we will go to London Fashion Week, New York Fashion Week and Paris Fashion Week to spread the message.”

She hopes it is through the strength of the women that this will be possible. “This fabric commands respect. It shows that Congolese women are beautiful, courageous and brave,” says Jane. “I want the collection to spread, wide and far, the message of the strength of Congolese women in particular and the world’s women in general. To be a tool that will help to enact laws to fight all forms of violence. I want it to be a tool which will raise consciousness about gender equality – and about women as strong, beautiful and amazing creatures.”

Hugh Francis Anderson is a freelance journalist based in London. Follow him on Instagram.

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