Survivors of DRC conflict honoured on the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women
Monday 25 November 2019
A new collection of fabrics has been launched worldwide and showcased in their home country by the women they were made for – the women of the City of Joy, survivors of the catastrophic, ongoing conflict in the DRC, which, it has been said, makes the country one of the worst places in the world to be a woman.
City of Joy is a transformational leadership community for women; survivors of brutal rape and mutilation by soldiers and civilians, who use women as weapons of war. Located in Bukavu in the Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, it provides a place for them to overcome pain and stigma to emerge as confident leaders, ready to go back to their communities and pass on the message that power can come from pain.
During a visit to the City of Joy, Gabriela Sanchez y Sanchez de la Barquera, designer for specialist fabric maker Vlisco, was asked by the women there if she would design prints for them that would honour the work of Nobel Peace Prize winner Dr Denis Mukwege, the surgeon who, with his team of doctors, has physically healed them. Awed by the strength of the women she met there, she created the City of Joy Collection, which tells the story of the women who have made the journey from suffering to a place of love and hope. The fabrics are marked by the words ‘Love’, ‘Respect’ and ‘Strength’ and reflect their healing and renewal through sisterhood, love and mutual respect.
The collection is made up of five printed super-wax fabric patterns in bold, bright patterns, with approximately 100 different, vivid colours, created using the old techniques of wax printing. The fabric designs, which depict a journey from pain to power and sorrow to joy, pay tribute to the vagina and the natural beauty of the Congo region. All the profits from the sale of the collection will be donated by Vlisco to the City of Joy.
Five female African designers have been working with 15 graduates of the City of Joy to create empowering and personalised garments using the new fabrics. The garments were first shown locally at an event in Bukavu held in honour of the women who have turned pain into power.
The collection will be showcased to a global audience by the women of the City of Joy at a gala event in Kinshasa this evening (November 25). With sexual violence a defining feature of the civil war in the eastern part of the country, the event aims to put an international spotlight on the issue. Currently more than 150 victims of sexual violence are admitted each month to Panzi Hospital in Bukavu and over 55,000 women and children have been treated there since 1999.
City of Joy is run by Congolese staff and was founded by writer of The Vagina Monologues Eve Ensler, Christine Schuler Deschryver and Dr Denis Mukwege. It opened in 2011, providing a place for women to heal themselves from their past trauma through therapy and life skills programming, while giving them essential support needed to help them move forward in life. Since opening, 1,294 women have graduated from the City of Joy.
Dr Denis Mukwege, Noble Peace Prize recipient and co-founder of the City of Joy, said: “As long as I have the opportunity to help, I will do it. I did not know when I opened my hospital that I would have to devote my life to fighting sexual violence as a weapon of war. This scourge is global and if my voice, my work and my actions can change the fate or life of even a woman somewhere in the world, I will continue to do so.”
Gabriela Sanchez y Sanchez de la Barquera, the Vlisco designer behind the collection, said: “The first thought that came to mind when I met the women of the City of Joy was ‘Is there anyone stronger than you?’ The collection aims to capture their journey from the darkest of places to a place of hope and love. It also portrays the great strength that comes from sisterhood. The designs suggest the beauty of the vagina and the respect it deserves, and they depict the forests and rivers and wildlife of the Eastern Congo – a place of fear but also joy.”
Christine Schuler Deschryver, Co-Founder and Director of City of Joy, added: “Taking part in this process has been a very positive experience for the women involved. They have been the driving force in the project and that is reflected in the vivacity and colour of the fabrics and the originality of the designs. It’s vital that the world’s eyes are opened to the atrocities that are taking place here and it’s beyond inspiring that the women who have suffered most are those brave enough to take a stand today.”
David Suddens, CEO of Vlisco, said: “To visit the City of Joy is at once a humbling and uplifting experience. It is shocking to see how such young women have been so abused and damaged. The statistics are horrifying – and yet we meet confident and strong women who have overcome their past. Men need, at long last, to face up to their responsibilities. They need to say to their fathers and brothers and sons and grandsons and friends that the violence against women must stop. This is a problem for men that needs to be addressed now.”
Eve Ensler, Co-Founder of City of Joy, added: “We are so thrilled by this amazing project of Vlisco in collaboration with the amazing women at City of Joy. It’s a project about healing, colour, life force and a celebration of women’s bodies. It highlights the profound beauty of Congolese women who embody the rising energy of the new world. We thank Vlisco for their stunning fabrics and style but mainly for joining their creativity with the struggle to free the women of Congo from violence so they can shine in their true beauty and power.”
ABOUT THE FABRICS
The five fabrics each represent a different story inspired by the City of Joy:
Sisterhood: The knotting of the twine represents inner turmoil. But the seeds deep in the twisted threads grow into flowers. And the intertwined flowers show the bond between the women of the City of Joy.
The Orchid: This is an ode to the vagina and how it should be loved and cherished for its fragile beauty.
Bouquet: The vagina, source of all life, is set against the blackness of the universe. Every flower is different as is every woman. The vagina rests on tumultuous waves which represent the unpredictability of the sea and of life.
The Congo River: The river represents a dark place of pain but small seeds grow upwards and become strong flowers, symbolic of the women who are autonomous but still a family.
The Lion: The lion sitting on his perch, dignified and a little sad, represents Dr Denis Mukwege. The fish are following him, the butterflies are the return of beauty to the dark forest and the birds herald the end of conflict.
For every yard of fabrics sold, Vlisco will donate €2 to the City of Joy. The fabrics can be purchased via www.vlisco.com as well as through key distributors in the DRC, Europe and Benin/Togo.