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.”