Why I Run

On my first visit to the Congo, a woman named Generose, rounded and softspoken, told me, over cooking smoke in a village in Congo’s rolling hills, of how her body became a battlefield.

It happened on a quiet evening. Generose was preparing a meal when militia charged into her home and demanded money. She and her husband handed over $130—everything they had hidden away. But the men still killed her husband and cut off Generose’s leg with machetes. They cooked her leg in the fire and commanded her six children to eat it. When Generose’s 9-year-old son refused, they shot him in the head. Generose, who had passed out from blood loss, woke up several days later in a hospital. Though she has no memory of it, she had injuries that suggest she was gang-raped.

The first time I heard a story as horrific as Generose’s, I was lounging on my couch watching an Oprah special about Congo’s war on women. I learned that on the other side of the globe, militias have staked their claim over Congo’s vast resources by terrorizing locals with soul-crushing violence. I learned that hundreds of thousands of women have been raped, most of them by gangs. I also learned that four million people had died in the conflict. If the International Rescue Committee mortality statistics hold, that number has swelled to more than seven million.

From my home in Portland, Oregon—a city Forbes Magazine recently ranked the third safest in the US—I scrambled to think of how I could help women in Congo, a place often deemed the worst place on Earth to be a woman. I discovered that I could use my own body to fight for women whose bodies have become emblems of war.

I launched Run for Congo Women in 2005 when I did my first 30-mile trail run and asked my friends to pledge to sponsor a “sister” through Women for Women International’s Congo program. I didn’t know how to put an end to the conflict, but I could put one foot in front of the other and hope it mattered. Thirty miles was an effort that couldn’t be faked. And the money raised could help women across the world.

That first year, my toenails fell off, I accidentally swallowed spiders, pounded miles of trail, and every week I went on the longest run of my life. Without a clue what the reverb might be, with every step, I was laying the foundation for a movement for Congo that would grow across the globe.

Two years later, I traveled to meet my sisters who had lived through countless horrors, from mass slaughter to gang rape. In one women’s group, more than half of the women had been raped in the last six months. Toward the end of our long talk, one woman asked, “Do they also rape women in America?”

“Women are raped all over the world,” I answered. “It is not as common as it is here, but a number of American women who have been raped have run to raise your sponsorship. They asked me to especially extend their love to you.”

Another woman raised her hand. “What can we do to manage and improve so we can support other women?”

Five years into my work, I am haunted by the fact that some of the solutions are actually straightforward: security sector reform, ending our reliance on conflict minerals that fund the war, and disarming the militias that drive the violence. And we must urge our own governments to pay attention.

And by helping, we help ourselves. Through running, I discovered my own power. What if the same is true for female survivors of war? When we have control over little else, our refuge may be our physical person.

Early this year, on the shores of Lake Kivu, Congolese women survivors did just that. In the drizzle, wearing brightly patterned African wraps and plastic sandals, flanked by an all-female police force, local dignitaries, international press, and 44 solidarity runs around the world, 50 of my Congolese sisters ran one mile. They raised more than $50,000 for other Congolese women.

Afterwards, the sisters were abuzz, singing, dancing, and talking about starting running clubs. Survivors I had only ever seen weep beamed with joy.

Generose was there. Wearing a red suit and pink pearls, she ran on old, mismatched wooden crutches, barefoot, and only made it about a third of the way. She took it as far as she could and said, “If I can run on only one leg, everyone will know they can do something to help.”

Comment on this Editorial


You are an inspiration. May God keep you safe to continue and set an example to the world. I am glad to meet you here.

Wish you all the best :-)

With admiration Amei

Dear Lisa,

I have no words to express what I am feeling now - I read this article and for at least 5minutes did nothing but think about Generose. I cannot even half imagine the pain and violence she has suffered, the community has suffered through acts that are utter disgrace to humankind. To lift up a spirit such as hers, to instill such courage and enthusiasm in a heart that is so bitterly battered, is no mean feat. You are a real inspiring being and I hope that I will some day be able to contribute and replicate your efforts for "sisters" across the globe.


I also live here in Portland Oregon and I also watched that Oprah special. It was the first time I ever heard of the women in Congo and how horrific their lives are due to the murders and lack of support and government influence. I was wondering if you are continuing to do that race of the women of the Congo? I was wondering if I could help you in any way. I dream of being able to go to the Congo and help these women. I completely support you and your movement!

Hope the best for you in your journey in life you are tring to draw smile and help poor injured women in congo how noble aim , thanks for sharing this best of luke your sister Alaa

I am awed by your kind contribution to the traumatized rape victims of Congo. I have read several articles on the atrocities committed by the militias in Congo but your story was very touching and the fact that you are going out of your way to be a blessing to these women is a big plus. May God bless and reward you.

Heart of a Lioness.

I have just come across your article about your work for Congo women. I am so overwhelmed with feelings for you and your cause. You are necessary. You matter. Thank you for what you do and for how you make us all question our own level of committment to life that we must increase. You have given us a new ceiling.

Thank you.

Ubuntu (I am who I am because of who we are together)

Wendy Stebbins

P.S. My youngest son's first name is Shannon and he used to live in Portland, Oregon so I have spent much time there

Wendy Stebbins Founder/CEO I AM ONE IN A MILLION Non-Profit Organization focused on helping street orphans and vulnerable children in Livingstone, Zambia Africa.

I'm really happy for the work you do in favor of women and girls victims of sexual violence in our country. I encourage you to continue to support us in this work for the restoration of the dignity of women in DR Congo. I am also working in this field since 1999.

Our website is www.afpde.org