Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Empower Congo Women
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Nurturing the Smiles of Congo

The Dark Side

By now most of you know that terrible things happen in Democratic Republic of Congo—that it may be the worst place in the world to be a woman or girl.

This description of Congo is used most often by the media to get attention, or by charitable organizations to garner donations, a publicity ploy dubbed “pornography of the poor,” because it exploits the poor by always showing them desperate and suffering. I too have been guilty of perpetuating that impression in my last two fund raising emails. 

Let the Light Shine

So today I want to describe to you the Congo I know and love. This is another version, which may be surprising because we are accustomed to hearing the worst about that country. Yes, terrible things happen there, but there are also kindness and joy wherever you look. Of all the places I’ve traveled, Congo has the most vitality, is the most alive place--its people, animals, forests, and jungles—I’ve ever been.
Contrary to what you may imagine, the Congolese are sociable people, not prone to rape or war. There was no rape to speak of in Congo before 1995 when over one million Rwandan Hutus, perpetrators of the Rwandan genocide, relocated to refugee camps in eastern Congo. Eighty percent of them escaped into the surrounding mountains and the reign of terror began. It is said you could identify which terrorist group attacked a village by the type of torture they inflicted on the women.

Against this tableau of suffering, there are many good Congolese people working hard to make their country a better place, safe and peaceful for all who live there. These people are warm, friendly, and gracious. . . and just like my good friends pictured below, they are lots of fun!  

 Amani Matabaro, Director of ABFEK and President of Mwangaza Rotary Club

 Hortense Barholere and adoptees, UN Security Officer

Dominique Bikaba, Conservationist, Executive Director, Strong Roots Congo 

It is said that when two or more Congolese get together, there is a party. They certainly love to gather together in small groups to talk, laugh, sing, and dance.

Mamas at Centre Ushindi, DR Congo
Women and girls who have been violated suffer grievously, but with kids to feed, they must continue on. The strength and resilience of these women is legendary: they carry loads heavy enough for pack animals, yet they can flash smiles of joy that disarm you.

Woman carrying bananas, DR Congo
This is your opportunity to support the joyous spirit of the Congolese people. Instead of focusing on the dark side, let’s encourage their strength, resiliency, courage, and most of all their smiles.

The Congo Trauma Healing Project is being created with the intention of bringing inner peace to the men, women and children who suffer from trauma. It also has the broader intention of reconciling the various tribal groups that live in the Mumosho area.  As daunting as it may sometimes seem, trauma healing is doable in Congo. So let’s make it happen together! 

With love and appreciation,

Victoria Bentley
Executive Director – Empower Congo Women

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Bringing trauma healing to DR Congo

Teen-agers collecting firewood in Sud Kivu Province, DRC
 In 2011, an estimated 1100 women and girls were being raped every day in DRC, primarily by militia groups. Now four years later, the militias are mostly demobilized, but rape continues to be an epidemic.

Today women and girls are being sexually attacked by teachers, neighbors, police, and members of their own family. Domestic abuse is rampant, and unemployed men target young girls going to collect firewood and working in the fields. There is no fear of punishment, so no woman or girl is safe in DRC.

Charitable organizations provide medical care for a fraction of the women: doctors at Panzi Hospital believe for every woman they treat, thirty go without medical care. Psychological care is almost non-existent in Congo.

“Widows” -- women shunned by their husbands and community in DR Congo
Can you imagine being staked to the ground and brutally gang-raped while your husband, children, and community watch? Raped so viciously you need surgery to repair the wounds. Then shunned by your husband and sent from the community--the only world you’ve ever known--without means of support and small children in tow?

War victims work hard to rebuild their lives in DR Congo

I know these women personally. They filled my vocational center in Bukavu: Justine, who was forced to watch her husband be buried alive, then raped repeatedly and left for dead; Terese, who spent 22 months in hospital, her feet in stirrups hoping to repair the damage that never healed; and Angelique, who listened to the screams of her sister being burned alive while she was raped. This is hard stuff to hear, unimaginable to bear. 

In 2010, Gunilla Hamne and I taught 25 rape survivors like the women described above to be trauma healers using TTT, the Trauma Tapping Technique. They underwent three months training and an exam; all passed and became Certified Trauma Healers

The women loved the tapping technique: They eagerly practiced it on each other, then took it home to their children and out into the community to help others who were suffering. One woman said it felt "like fresh air moving through my body;" others said it made their mind clearer and easier to make decisions. Hortense, a woman who had lost 4 of her 5 children, changed from being hostile and argumentative to being kind and willing to help others in the center. 

Overall, the tapping seemed to lift the despair these women felt and allowed them to be hopeful about the future. Being trauma healers also gave them a meaningful place in the community; once again they were valuable contributors to everyone's well being instead of unwelcome victims. 

TTT Certified Trauma Healers, DR Congo

The psychological wounds these women carry are far worse than the physical torture they endured. The loss is beyond our comprehension, yet the Congolese women I've known have huge recuperative powers. Given healing skills and a supportive environment, they are able to regenerate their aliveness, and they are willing to pass that healthy enthusiasm on to others: Making that happen on a larger scale is my vision for the Congo Trauma Healing Project. 

Please help us help these women recover emotionally from the terrible wounds they suffer. One rape victim's dream is to live a life free of the trauma of her rape and to be able to feed and clothe my children. Working together, we can make that happen.

Show these women that others are sympathetic to their suffering. You have no idea how much it means to them to know that others care what happens to them and their children. 

With love and appreciation,

Victoria Bentley, PsyD
Executive Director - Empower Congo Women

                                          PLEASE DONATE NOW

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Congo Trauma Therapy Project

Congo is the most dangerous place on earth for women and children

Dear Friends, 

Welcome to helping families heal and rebuild their lives in DR Congo! I’m excited about returning to Congo next month and excited as well to tell you what we're planning there. Working with Amani Matabaro of ABFEK Congo, we're going to set up a trauma healing center in Mumosho, the war-torn part of eastern Congo where most of Empower Congo Women projects have taken place.

As you may remember from prior blogs, trauma healing is what originally drew me to Congo in 2008. And although ECW has accomplished many wonderful things since then, the Congo Trauma Healing Project has never come to fruition. 

But it is now! This September, we intend to establish a healing center where anyone who is traumatized can get the help they need-- rape survivors, victims of abuse, families, returning child soldiers, orphaned children, and teen-age mothers.

There is so much need in Congo—just about everyone is traumatized, so this trauma center will be a godsend.

Thousands of traumatized Congolese women and girls need help.

I plan to teach peer counselors a series of effective, simple-to-learn techniques that enable people to manage trauma symptoms. The counselors will be salaried and expected to hold weekly meetings where local folk can learn and practice the healing techniques so they can help themselves. We're going to rent a quiet space where people can come together in peace and safety.

The trauma healing protocol I will be teaching is a combination of breath work, body awareness, tapping (TTT), visualization, and some cognitive therapy.The therapeutic sequence has been designed to be compatible with Congolese culture.

This pilot project is intended to run for one year. At the end of that time, we will apply for a Rotary Global Grant to expand the reach of trauma healing in Congo. Stay tuned for the next email where you will learn the history behind this project and why we know it will succeed. 

Thanks for being part of the continuing efforts to make DRCongo a safer, kinder place for women and children.

With love and appreciation,

Victoria Bentley, PsyD.
Executive Director, Empower Congo Women

Copyright © 2015 Victoria Bentley. All rights reserved (applies to writing and photography)
You are receiving this email as one of Dr. Bentley's supporters in her campaign to help rape victims in DR Congo.

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Sunday, July 19, 2015

Pygmy Land Project 2010-2015

                                             Pygmy kids look to the future. DRCongo

In my  9/24/2010 blog, I wrote about my friends Margaret Johnson and Betty Merner who travelled from Rhode Island to Congo to teach sewing and ended up starting a project to secure local pygmy "a home of their own."

So the Pygmy Land Project (PLP) was begun to purchase land near the Kahuzi-Biega National Park, with a fundraising goal of $50,000 to buy about 25 acres. Funds were to be channelled through Empower Congo Women. The land was to be negotiated and secured by Dominique Bikaba, a Congolese conservationist and friend of the pygmy. 

The backstory

The pygmy are the indigenous people of Africa. For millennium the "forest people" lived in symbiotic relationship with nature until the 1970s when the lush forests of DRC were declared National Parks, and the pygmy were evicted.

Since then, the pygmy have suffered much. Living on borrowed land outside the magnificent park that was once their home, they are marginalized, violated, and hunted for sport. They live in extreme poverty with little hope of improvement.

Margaret and Betty were profoundly touched by the beautiful pygmy children, the extreme poverty, and the despair that haunts displaced people. 

Margaret with pygmy child

Mission accomplishedi

After 4 years of fund raising, the PLP realized its goal and 27+ acres of land were purchased and deeded to the Buyungule community as a whole. Ownership is permanent, with stipulations the land will always be theirs. 

The land will be used for both settlement and agriculture. The 150 families in the community have moved from a 3-acre plot to 27 acres, which enables them to farm food crops with the possibility of becoming sustainable. 

I am still amazed two women from the US bought land for a pygmy community half-way around the world! Before the trip, they knew little about Congo and nothing about the pygmy. It is a testament to how much each of us can do when we see the need and take action. 

We believe this may be the first time land was bought for the pygmy in Congo! Congratulations Margaret and Betty!!! Well done!

Next on the agenda

Margaret, Betty and I are returning to Congo this September for a ceremony to dedicate the land. Plans are in the works to build a school on the property, since their last school was destroyed by Rwandan soldiers 5 years ago.

The pygmy are holders of ancient wisdom regarding jungle plants and animals. We need to keep this unique intelligence alive to benefit the entire planet.

Help us help the pygmy survive! Please DONATE generously . . . a little goes a loooong way!

With love and appreciation,

Victoria Bentley
President, Empower Congo Women

Monday, February 23, 2015


 Teen mothers at Safe House, Mumosho Women's Center,  DRC (2014)

Three years have passed since I was last in Congo and that long since I've written this blog. Nevertheless, our non-profit organization, Empower Congo Women (ECW), is going strong!

A number of amazing projects have come to fruition in that time, all made possible by the collaboration of like-minded souls like yourself who share the vision of a peaceful, prospering Congo. 

We deeply appreciate your on-going support for ECW's projects. In doing so, you play a major role in making real, lasting change happen in Congo. Check out what we've been able to accomplish in the last few years working together:
  • Mumosho Women's Center
  • Safe House for Teen Mothers


Women registered to vote.  Mumosho Women's Center, DRCongo (2014)

This beautiful building is our largest project to date and has become the mainstay of community life in Mumosho. A rallying place for community events, workshops, such as family planning, women's rights, and peace negotiations among ex-combatants, are held here.

The center serves many educational needs for the community: as schoolroom for literacy and sewing classes, vocational training site for entrepreneurs, organic agriculture hub, and health center promoting child/maternal health. 

Additionally, the MWC functions as Safe House for Teen Mothers. The center is able to feed and house ten young women (and their babies) at a time. Since 2013, 45 young women have received vocational training here and returned to their villages as valuable members of society instead of outcasts.

Literacy classes are popular with local women, most of whom cannot read or write, because girls are often kept home from school to help with younger children. Young women are especially eager to become literate so they can vote for President in the upcoming Congolese election.                                                                                       
The center was created through the collaboration of many people. The building was designed by Amani Matabaro, director of ABFEK, a Congolese charity, who sketched it on a napkin and then managed its construction.

The project was sponsored by Rotary Club of Montecito in conjunction with 30 other Rotary Clubs and Rotary International. Private donors and fundraising events were invaluable in making this dream become a reality.

In 2014, the center was honored as an exemplary Rotary project in District 5190, which covers 12 countries in central Africa.


"My Goat is Your Goat" Project

Organized by Amani at the Mumosho Women's Center, this project has been a huge success in building community as well as improving food capacity.

Goats are more than just animals to the Congolese. Their value extends far beyond being producers of meat and milk: They are given as dowry presents and land payment, as well as settlement in legal disputes.  When you give someone a goat, it means you are friends for life

"My goat is Your Goat" participants.      Mumosho Women's Center, DRCongo (2013)

This is how it works: MWC gives a woman a pregnant goat that she cares for lovingly so the first kid will be healthy. Instead of being sold, it is given to another woman, who in turn passes her first kid on to another woman. This way women become sisters and community is built between families, with even the poorest women being included.

Amani uses this program to teach ethical leadership, explaining that when people care for another's goat, or receive one from another person, they become participating members of the community instead of looking out only for themselves. 

Family Planning Workshops

Two workshops were given--one for men, the other for women. There was a huge turnout, both sexes wanting some form of birth control. Unfortunately, there are few clinics offering birth control, because Congo is a predominately Catholic country. However, everyone learned about women's high mortality rate after the 5th child. Until recently, even educated Congolese believed that families with 12 children was desirable. 

The MWC is working toward becoming sustainable by selling its sewing projects, organic produce, baskets, and small animals at local markets. It is not sustainable yet; there are ongoing expenses for teachers, food for the teen mothers and their children, and center upkeep. Please consider donating to keep our programs going. DONATE NOW

Proud sewing teacher with teen mothers. DRCongo (2014)
Rape is still epidemic in Congo, and young girls are frequently rape victims. A pregnant teenager with no husband is at risk, because she is often shunned by the community and has no job skills to support herself or the child. This is especially true when she is a rape survivor (sad but true). 

The Safe House was created to give pregnant teen agers and their babies shelter and vocational training until they can support themselves. The Safe House is located within the Mumosho Women's Center and houses 10 girls and their babies at all times. 

"Here there are people who care for me and love me. 
Being in the program makes me come back to life again."

Safe House Curriculum

All the teen moms take literacy classes and learn how to sew. They are taught hygiene and expected to come to class clean, which builds pride. They take classes on child health, nutrition, and cooking. 

The young women generate income for themselves and the center by selling school uniforms to local children. Some learn small animal husbandry. . . how to raise healthy chickens, rabbits, and guinea pigs for sale at the Mumosho Peace Market. They also learn how to manage money in weekly entrepreneurial classes.

Young mother learns to write in Congo

Recently, 10 young mothers graduates were given sewing machines and fabric to start their own businesses. With a vocation and new-found pride, they are able to rejoin their community on good terms.

MWC programs have literally saved their lives and the lives of their children. No longer cast out, they are respected members of the community whose children go to school. Please DONATE NOW to keep the Safe House and its life-saving programs open!


#1 reason: Democratic Republic of Congo is ranked the No. 1 poorest country in the world. Despite its enormous mineral wealth, the majority of Congolese live in extreme poverty. Rape continues to be epidemic with an estimated 1150 women being raped there every day.

Your donation makes it possible for Congolese women to become financially self-sufficient and stand up against this terrible violence toward women. Donors 
also support programs that build community, provide literacy and health education, and promote peace and reconciliation in eastern Congo.

#2 reason: You can be confident that your donations go to support projects, not administrative costs. I am available to answer any questions, and will be sending project reports from Congo in September.

If there is a program you wish to support or create, please contact me directly to discuss how we can do this.  ECW's mission is to turn visions into reality.

  • Bakery project - provide ingredients for baking bread 
  • Fish pond project - stock pond with fish fed with organic waste from garden
  • Water project - bring water to over 20,000 people in Mumosho area
  • Kitchen garden project - with water taps working, women grow produce near home
My pledge is to keep sending updates about Empower Congo Women's projects so you can track the progress of what your donations are providing.
Again, my heart is filled with gratitude to you all.

Think about GETTING INVOLVED and developing projects with us! 
WE NEED YOU!!! and it's really, really FUN!

With love and appreciation,

 Victoria Bentley