Recently, I was in the Democratic Republic of Congo with a team of colleagues working to end impunity for sexual violence in conflict zones. We train doctors, nurses, lawyers, and judges on how to collect, document, and evaluate forensic evidence of sexual assault, with the aim of increasing the number of successful prosecutions of sexual violence perpetrators. This is especially important in Congo, where dozens of women are victimized every hour.
As I reflect on the past year, all that is happening in the world, and the promise of a new year, I’ve been thinking a lot about our time in Congo.
During this visit, my American colleagues and I spent time with our Congolese colleagues on the front lines of evaluating and caring for rape survivors. Like so many other parts of the world, Congo is full of contradictions – immense wealth (natural resources like gems, metals, oil) and abject poverty (many people do not have basic necessities like clean water, food, or shelter); joy and sadness; justice and injustice.
It is incredibly difficult to see so many women and children victimized every day, in a fractured country with a fragmented justice system, and maintain hope that life will get better.
At the end of our time there, just like in other trips, we made time to talk with our colleagues about burnout and vicarious traumatization – when empathic health care workers, journalists, first responders, activists, and others on the front lines develop symptoms like social withdrawal, constant worry, problems with sleep, intrusive memories and nightmares, and hopelessness.
As we talked about what we each do to make it through the day, doctors and nurses molded clay into works of art demonstrating the emotional burden they bear. Some shapes emerged as flattened pieces of clay meant to represent the pressure weighing on caretakers; others were elaborate canoes in the middle of the ocean.
After we shared works of art, we talked about resilience and how to hold on to optimism about the future. Sometimes it is incredibly difficult to see hope in the midst of despair. But it is there. And when we feel broken, grasping for hope, even the smallest glimpses of compassion can keep us going. I was reminded of this through the actions of one of my colleagues.
One day, my colleague and I spent time with a mother of six children who was raped and became pregnant as a result of the rape. Her husband threatened to throw her out of the house, and she worried that she would be left homeless with seven young children. My colleague had the opportunity to visit with her again later, and during that time, she gave the woman her intricate ring designed in the shape of an elaborate lace pattern, with the hope that the woman could sell it if her situation worsened. It was a small act of kindness, and a huge act of love. And it gave me hope, if even a small bit.
Acts of kindness are everywhere – even in some of the darkest places. James Foley reminded us of that possibility when he organized Secret Santa games for other Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) hostages who, like him, were tortured before being killed.
I’ve held on to those and other small acts of kindness, as I recall images of Ferguson, Missouri and New York City; ongoing, often ignored conflicts in parts of Africa; Taliban attacks on school children; the Senate report on CIA torture tactics; Tommy and others held in lonely concrete cells; and federally funded maternal deprivation experiments subjecting monkeys to a “pit of despair.” I am overwhelmed by the question of will it end, and, if so, when?
It can’t be soon enough.
I am a firm believer in seeing reality for what it is – in all its harsh ugliness and beauty – while maintaining a sometimes unrealistic hope and faith that things will get better. After all, isn’t this the only way activists have forced the arc of the moral universe to bend toward justice?
And there are signs everywhere that life is getting better, or soon to get better, for many.
In the Democratic Republic of Congo and other parts of Africa, there is evidence that tolerance for sexual violence is relenting, and women are on the front lines of that movement.
This year, the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Kailash Satyarthi and Malala Yousafzay for their struggle against the suppression of children and young people and for the right of all children to education.
Politicians on both sides of the aisle have taken a stand against torture.
Nations across the world have enacted bans on using wild animals in circuses and an orangutan in Argentina was granted basic legal rights. Meanwhile, members of Congress have launched an inquiry into the use of monkeys in maternal deprivation experiments, at the urging of activists.
And the list goes on…
Our ongoing challenge is commit to being solutionaries – even in the midst of despair – to expand the list of solutions so that they flood the list of problems they are meant to solve. As we push for a tidal wave of change, I try to remember that it is the things we do every day that add up, ripple after ripple.