Wednesday, December 29, 2010

2010 - A Year of Focus and Continuing Growth


This truly has been a wonderful year for Empower Congo Women! During 2010, we continued to provide long-term, sustainable solutions that empower Congolese women to rebuild their lives through training, health care, education and economic opportunities.
Ushindi women become Certified Trauma Healers

We began 2010 by expanding Ushindi Center, so we now have several rooms devoted to vocational training as well as an office and storage room.  Doing this enabled us to enroll 28 more women into our program, giving them hope for the future. Ranging from 15-21 years, the young women are all war survivors-- some have babies, others attend school, few have parents—yet their enthusiasm for learning is palpable-- my heart 
 
On March 18th, I joined the Ushindi women to march in solidarity with women all over the world for the International Women’s Day March. It poured that day, but we continued to march in the rain along with  2000 other soaked women from eastern Congo.













In April, my wonderful friends Margaret Johnson and Betty Merner arrived in Bukavu from Rhode Island with suitcases bursting with fabric, stuffing and sewing notions, ready to make dolls for sale at Waldorf Schools. Both school teachers, they organized  the women who learned to cut, sew, stuff, and hand stitch doll parts, after two weeks completing 100 beautiful dolls! Latest word from Betty is that all the dolls are sold and Waldorf parents are asking for more . . . now to get them from Bukavu to the US!


While Margaret and Betty were there, we trekked to see the Lowland Gorillas in Kahuzi Biega National Park, an amazing experience.  Impressed by the poverty of a pygmy village nearby, they took action to help the tribe buy its own land by creating the Pygmy Land Project.  Working under the auspices of Empower Congo Women, they plan to raise $50,000, so the pygmies will have a place to call home.



 The pygmies of Kahuzi Biega need a place to call home.
Rotary International played a big role in our lives this year.  As a member of the International Service Committee of Rotary Club of Montecito, I was able to speak to 30 other clubs about the dire situation of women and children in eastern Congo. 

The clubs’ generous support provided vocational training and equipment for women and girls survivors of sexual violence at Ushindi Center in Bukavu and the Kivu Sewing Workshop in Mumosho, a groupment of villages south of Bukavu. Mumosho was also recipient of Rotary funding that improved a primary school, bought goats for 25 families, and outfitted a demonstration farm that teaches environmentally sound farming methods.

I was honored to receive the District 5240 Direct Service Award from Rotary International this year, as well as to be named a Paul Harris Fellow for my international service work. Ushindi Center was also honored by the visit of District 5190 Governor, Maria Marceline, who although District Governor of 10 countries made a special visit to our Center in support of women’s projects worldwide. 

I am proud to say that we sponsored 126 children in school this year, which means we saved 126 children from becoming rebels, bandits and prostitutes—at least for one year! Your continued support of Empower Congo Women’s Educational Fund guarantees these children the hope of a better future! DONATE NOW!

2010 - A Year of Focus and Continuing Growth

 
Young women learn to sew at Ushindi Center.
This truly has been a wonderful year for Empower Congo Women! During 2010, we continued to provide long-term, sustainable solutions--such as vocational training, education and trauma healing--which enable Congolese women to rebuild their lives and prosper.


We began 2010 by expanding Ushindi Center, so there are now several rooms devoted to  training as well as an office and storage.  Doing this allowed us space to enroll more women in the program, giving 28 more families the opportunity for a better life. Ranging in age from 15-19 years, these young women are all war survivors-- some have babies, others attend school, few have parents, yet their enthusiasm for learning is heart warming. These girls are the future of Congo. To support their growth, DONATE NOW:
On March 18th, I joined the Ushindi women to march in solidarity with women  worldwide for the International Women’s Day March. It poured that day, but we  marched on in the rain with  2000 other soaked women from eastern Congo. What a trip!

 Check out the gathering clouds in background.
In April, my wonderful friends Margaret Johnson and Betty Merner arrived in Bukavu from Rhode Island with suitcases bursting with fabric, stuffing and sewing notions, ready to make dolls to sell at Waldorf Schools. Both school teachers, they quickly organized  the women who learned to cut, sew, stuff, and hand stitch doll parts-- in only two weeks  they completed 100 perfect Waldorf dolls! Latest word from Betty is that all the dolls are sold and Waldorf parents are asking for more . . . now to get them from Bukavu to the US!
 The doll-making assembly line
While Margaret and Betty were there, we trekked the Kahuzi Biega National Park to see the Lowland Gorillas. It was an amazing experience!  Impressed by the poverty of a pygmy village nearby, my friends took action to help the tribe buy its own land by creating the Pygmy Land Project.  Working under the auspices of Empower Congo Women, they plan to raise $50,000, so the pygmies will have a place to call home.
 
 The pygmies of Kahuzi Biega need a place to call home.
Rotary International played a big role in our lives this year.  As member of the International Service Committee of Rotary Club of Montecito, I was able to speak to 30 other clubs about the urgent need to address the dire situation in eastern Congo. 
Rotary Club of Montecito International Service Committee, 2010
Rotary member's generous support provided vocational training and equipment for women and girls survivors of sexual violence at Ushindi Center in Bukavu and the Kivu Sewing Workshop in Mumosho, a groupment of villages south of Bukavu. Mumosho was also recipient of Rotary funding that improved Burhembo Primary School, bought goats for 30 families, and outfitted a demonstration farm that teaches environmentally sound farming methods.
 Burhembo Primary School, Mumosho
I was honored to receive the District 5240 Direct Service Award from Rotary International this year, as well as to be named a Paul Harris Fellow for my international service. Ushindi Center was honored by the visit of District 5190 Governor, Maria Marceline, who although District Governor of 10 countries made a special trip to Ushindi Center in support of women worldwide. 

Exciting news is that Empower Congo Women now has a formal Board of Directors at the helm. Named in November, the BOD is comprised of myself, Lisa Harrington, Charlie Dawson, Vera Dudley, and Seira Salemon. Learn more about this remarkably talented team  at       http://empowercongowomen.org/about.php
 
I am very happy that we were able to sponsor 126 children in school this year, which means we saved 126 children from becoming rebels, bandits and prostitutes—at least for one year! Your continuing support of Empower Congo Women's Educational Fund holds the promise of a better future for these children for years to come. Please DONATE NOW!  
The women and girl participants at Ushindi Center will be graduating this spring, so that  other women survivors can have the opportunity to  rebuild their lives.  All graduates are being prepared and tested by a master tailor to ensure that their dressmaking skills can support them. Upon graduation each woman will be given a gift "kit" to make a living.  Each "kit" costs $150 and consists of a treadle sewing machine with stand, fabric, notions, and oil to keep the machine running well. We have 2 kits donated now and need 43 more! Won't you please help these women get off to a good start by donating a Graduation Kit. 
http://empowercongowomen.org/donate.php  
Angeline is the single mother of 6 children. Her husband was killed several years ago.

As the year draws to an end, I want to thank you all for your continuing support of Empower Congo Women. We are a grassroots organization working to rebuild the fabric of society in eastern Congo. I believe more than ever that many people giving a bit of what they have, no matter how small the contribution, can move mountains! So this is your chance to make the world a better place-- one woman, one family at a time. Be part of our grassroots movement where every dollar counts, and every dollar is accounted for! To quote Mahatma Gandhi, Be the change you want to see in the world.


With Love and Gratitude and Best Wishes for a Prosperous and very happy New Year,


Victoria Bentley





Sunday, November 28, 2010

Ushindi women march against violence

Ushindi Center girls carry the banner during the Women' March against Violence

On Sunday, October 17th, the women of Ushindi Center marched through the streets of Bukavu with thousands of other women from all over the world. They marched to protest the sexual violence against women that still continues unabated in eastern Congo today.

Forty-five Ushindi women marched together in solidarity carrying a banner that said,
“Denounce us and we speak up.
No to violence against women.
Until women are free, we will mach.”

First Lady Olive Lembe Kabila,  the Minister of Gender, Marie-Ange Lukiana, and others, planted trees at the Triangle de Nguba as symbols of the women who have died, been raped, or otherwise victimized during the 14 years of violence against women in Congo.

The marchers walked through the streets of Bukavu to Independence Square, where speeches and a manifest were read.

The march was organized by the World Women March movement. Women came from countries from all over the world to participate in the march.

With love and gratitude,

Victoria


Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Rotary International in eastern Congo

Rotary International has become a benefactor of Ushindi Center and other projects in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.

I am proud to say I belong to Rotary Club of Montecito, California, USA. Through the support and generosity of its members, and 20 other Rotary Clubs in District 5240, Rhode Island and Illinois, we have been able to expand services at Ushindi Center as well as contribute to the well-being of other community-based charitable organizations in eastern Congo. In short, we are helping the good people of Congo rebuild their lives.

 Montecito Rotary Club International Service Committee, 2009-2011

Our Host Partner is Rotary Club of Bukavu, DRC.  Our clubs have worked together to generate two grants that rehabilitate women victims of sexual violence, build sustainable business, and provide scholarships for primary and secondary school children.


 
Celestin Ntayira, me, Elysee Bishako, and Thierry Mwira, President Bukavu Rotary Club, 2010-2011 

Our alliance has brought relief to hundreds of unfortunate war victims in Bukavu and the Mumosho area of South Kivu Province. Working together on two grants, we have provided vocational training programs, much needed equipment, income generating projects, seeds for sustainable agriculture, improved animal strains for a demonstration farm, and payment of school fees for over 100 disadvantaged children.
 Ushindi member makes Waldorf Dolls sponsored by Rotary Wives from Wakefield, RI, April 2010

We are currently working on a third grant which plans to rehabilitate and educate at-risk girls in the Uvira area south of Bukavu. This is our most exciting project yet, because it builds income-generating projects into the structure of the school, so that girls get on-the-job training while helping the facility remain self-sustaining. 

So stay tuned -- and ask how you can get involved! There is lots more to come!

With love and gratitude,

Victoria










Friday, September 24, 2010

A Place to Call Home

Pygmy women gather around the well.

Pygmies are the indigenous people of Africa. For millennium they lived in the jungles of Congo where they maintained their unique relationship with nature.  In the mid-1970s, the government under Mobutu decreed that many of the lush Congolese forests were National Parks, and the pygmy were evicted.

Kahuzi Biega National Park (KBNP) in eastern Congo is famous for its lowland gorillas, some of whom can be seen by visitors.   http://www.biega.com/biega-kahuzi.html


It was the pygmy of Kahuzi Biega who habituated the first gorilla family in 1972; they followed the troop for 3 years until the male Silverback accepted humans into their midst. Now although the pygmy made gorillas accessible to tourists, they are not included in management decisions affecting the park.
 One of the pygmy gentlemen who first habituated gorillas to humans.

Today the pygmy of Kahuzi Biega live on borrowed land and are treated like lepers—cast out, violated, hunted for sport. They live outside the magnificent park that was once their home on land too small to feed their tribe, with the threat of eviction hanging over them like the sword of Damocles.  
Pygmy women with their children.

Last April, I took my friends Margaret Johnson and Betty Merner of Wakefield, RI to visit the gorillas and pygmy of KBNP. Our guide was Dominique Bikaba, a local man who grew up with the pygmy and is now a conservationist working to preserve the KB environment and its inhabitants.

My friends were profoundly touched by the pygmy people they met-- the beautiful children, the extreme poverty in which they live, and the despair that haunts displaced people with no home of their own.

So Margaret and Betty decided to do something to improve their lives: they decided to purchase land the pygmy can call their own, land that will support the tribe through farming and that can never be taken away from them!

The Pygmy Land Project

This project intends to purchase a permanent piece of land for the pygmy of Kahuzi Biega in eastern DRC. The fund raising goal is $50,000, which will buy about 25 acres. Funds will be channeled through Empower Congo Women. Donations to this project can be made through paypal on the Empower Congo Women website:   http://www.empowercongowomen.org/


Or donations can be mailed directly to Margaret Johnson, 1036 South Road, Wakefield, RI 02689. Please make checks out to "Empower Congo Women - Pygmy Land Project" to guarantee that your donation goes to this project.

Dominique Bikaba, a Congolese citizen and Director of the Strong Roots, an organization based in the Kahuzi Biega area, is the DRC contact for this project. Margaret and Betty are the big hearted sponsors from the US.

Empower Congo Women is a 501(c)3 non-profit corporation. All donations made through ECW are fully tax-deductible.
 

The kids race Betty to the car.



With love and gratitude,


Victoria












Thursday, September 23, 2010

The Amazing Waldorf Doll Project


Flash back to April 2010. . . Margaret Johnson and Betty Merner, friends from Rhode Island and Rotary wives, arrived in Bukavu with four huge suitcases crammed with fabric, thread, patterns and stuffing so the Ushindi women could make 100 Waldorf Dolls to sell in the US.

FYI, Waldorf Doll is a form of doll used in Waldorf Schools, which are intentionally made simple to allow playing children to develop their imagination and creativity. Traditionally made of natural fibers, they are often without facial expressions so the child is free to create their own story.

On the first day after greetings were exchanged amongst the all the women, Margaret and Betty got to work organizing the women into five groups. Each group would be responsible for making 20 dolls: cutting the 6 pieces for each doll, sewing it together, stuffing the head and body, and stitching the bonnet onto the face.

Since Betty and Margaret are both teachers, it was easy for them to demonstrate what needed to be done and organize the center into a working assembly line.

Doll bodies were stacked, filler material was everywhere; while some women sewed, others stuffed the heads and arms. The women thoroughly enjoyed themselves.


Eventually, the dolls began to take shape. With one day left to go, only 36 dolls were completed. Betty wondered if they would get all 100 dolls done by the time we left to go home.

And they did . . . The women came through, all 100 dolls were finished, beautifully made, with perfect stitching around the face. Betty reports that over 80 dolls have been sold, and the women are ready to make more.

With love and gratitude,




Thursday, July 15, 2010

Incredible Victory for making supply chains of "conflict minerals" transparent!

Dear Friends,

Your efforts to bring peace to Congo are paying off!

Please take a moment to read the latest email from Enough Project describing the recent victory Congo activists have had in making the supply chair of "conflict minerals" transparent. Included in the Wall Street Reform bill just passed by Congress is a provision that requires companies to disclose their source of supply for these minerals, with the intention that doing so will reduce profits that support terrorism in Congo, in much the same way that making "blood diamonds" transparent cut off funds that supported the war in Sierra Leon.

John Predergast, co-Founder of Enough Project, writes:

 Today, the world moved a step closer to ensuring that the supply chains for our laptops and cell phones do not finance violence in eastern Congo. Today, human rights activists, American consumers, and the people of Congo won an incredible victory. Congress passed the Wall Street reform bill with the inclusion of a key provision on conflict minerals which will require companies to disclose whether they source conflict minerals from Congo or neighboring countries, and require companies to report on steps taken to exclude conflict sources from their supply chains, backed by independent audits.


The growing movement for Congo across America should be very proud of this impressive victory. Activists and concerned consumers from communities across the country came together with one voice and told Congress we demand strong legislation that will put us on the path to ending one of the deadliest conflicts in modern history. You overran the Facebook pages of elected officials and electronics companies, followed up with phone calls, wrote letters and emails to their offices, met face-to-face with your representatives, and called on industry leaders to clean up their supply chain. These are just some examples of the creative advocacy that has helped elevate the issue of conflict minerals to reach today’s tipping point. Senators Christopher Dodd (D-CT), Sam Brownback (R-KS), Dick Durbin (D-IL), Russ Feingold (D-WI), and Reps. Jim McDermott (D-WA), Howard Berman (D-CA), and Barney Frank (D-MA), along with many other upstanding members of Congress, deserve special praise for leading this battle over the past two years.

From the day President Obama signs the bill, the Securities and Exchange Commission will have nine months to develop regulations implementing the new law. It will be up to all of us to ensure that these regulations are as strong as possible.

This legislation is a piece of the broader solution. We now have to turn our attention from the legislative branch of our government to the executive branch, to ensure that the Obama administration helps lead an international effort to create what we call a "trace, audit, and certify" regime to ensure that the raw materials that go into our cell phones and laptops are not fueling conflict.

You really did something meaningful here. Take a week off. We still have work to do, but we need to appreciate this victory. We will be coming back to you with ideas of how you can continue to be involved in shaping the actions our government takes and the practices our electronics companies utilize in sourcing the minerals that power all of our electronics products. Peace in Congo is possible. We just took one important step today on that road to a better future in Congo.

Thank you for your activism.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Contact Senators to Keep Teeth in the "Conflict Minerals" Bill

Hello all,
I know you all are busy, but Please take a moment to read this:

Enough Project and other activist organizations have been working hard to get a bill signed by Congress that requires multinational tech companies to become accountable when purchasing "conflict minerals" from DR Congo. This legislation is similar to regulating "blood diamonds", which were financing the war in Sierra Leon.


The rape of women and girls in Congo is perpetuated by the world’s dependence on these minerals to run modern technological devices--cell phones, computers,video games. Diverse military groups, backed by international corporations, compete for these “conflict minerals”: coltan, tin, tungsten, gold. Their strategy is to brutally gang rape females in areas where these minerals exist, displacing the population and giving them access to Congo’s vast mineral wealth. 

Bottom line: Violated Congolese women are paying the price for our technological toys and conveniences.

But you can help stop this wanton rape of women and girls by supporting the Conflict Minerals Bill up before Congress right now. To do so, please read on . . . (it only takes one minute)


Change the Equation for Congo

Dear Friend,

During the last several months we've asked for your help to create real change on the issue of Congo's conflict minerals. Never before has our request been more urgent than now. Critical language requiring conflict minerals accountability is part of the financial reform legislation currently being finalized by Congress. The fate of this conflict minerals language will likely be decided over the next 48 hours.

Despite tech industry support and strong bi-partisan support of the language and the legislation it's derived from, manufacturing and retail industry groups are lobbying hard to have it removed. Now is the time for you and the grassroots movement to stand up against corporate lobbyists. Even though tech companies have admitted it would cost one penny per product to ensure a conflict-free supply chain, lobbyists for manufacturing companies continue to argue that even this penny is too expensive.

Today we're urgently asking you to spend a few minutes to get key members of the Congressional conference committee to support the language (this is the group responsible for deciding the final fate of the legislation.) Each of the members below is of high strategic value to ensuring the conflict minerals language stays in the legislation.
TAKE ACTION TODAY ON FACEBOOK

We need to ensure that the following members use their influence to keep the conflict minerals language in the legislation:

Senator Blanche Lincoln (D-AR)

Senator Bob Corker (R-TN)

Please click on the links above to visit their Facebook pages. Click the "Like" button at the top, and then post a message asking for their support of the legislation. On Senator Lincoln's page, you will need to place your comment on her most recent post, because she doesn't allow feedback otherwise. We've drafted a sample for you to work from, but please feel free to customize your own if you would like:

"Senator {Insert Name}, please join a bi-partisan group of Senators in fighting to keep the Congo conflict minerals language in the financial reform bill. The tech industry estimates it would cost less than a penny per product to guarantee that their products are free of conflict minerals."

Without strong grassroots support, industry groups might succeed in undoing the progress you've made to end the trade in conflict minerals and bring peace to the people of Congo. Join us today and thank you for your urgent support at this critical time.

Sincerely,

Jenny Russell
Advocacy Director
Enough Project

P.S. If you do not use Facebook, or want to take further action, please contact the Senators' offices directly:

Senator Lincoln - Contact Elizabeth Burks - 202.224.4843

Senator Corker - Contact Courtney Geduldig - 202.224.

Now that wasn't so difficult . . . 

With love and gratitude,




Contact Senators to Keep Teeth in the "Conflict Minerals" Bill

Change the Equation for Congo

Dear Friend,

During the last several months we've asked for your help to create real change on the issue of Congo's conflict minerals. Never before has our request been more urgent than now. Critical language requiring conflict minerals accountability is part of the financial reform legislation currently being finalized by Congress. The fate of this conflict minerals language will likely be decided over the next 48 hours.

Despite tech industry support and strong bi-partisan support of the language and the legislation it's derived from, manufacturing and retail industry groups are lobbying hard to have it removed. Now is the time for you and the grassroots movement to stand up against corporate lobbyists. Even though tech companies have admitted it would cost one penny per product to ensure a conflict-free supply chain, lobbyists for manufacturing companies continue to argue that even this penny is too expensive.

Today we're urgently asking you to spend a few minutes to get key members of the Congressional conference committee to support the language (this is the group responsible for deciding the final fate of the legislation.) Each of the members below is of high strategic value to ensuring the conflict minerals language stays in the legislation.
TAKE ACTION TODAY ON FACEBOOK

We need to ensure that the following members use their influence to keep the conflict minerals language in the legislation:

Senator Blanche Lincoln (D-AR)

Senator Bob Corker (R-TN)

Please click on the links above to visit their Facebook pages. Click the "Like" button at the top, and then post a message asking for their support of the legislation. On Senator Lincoln's page, you will need to place your comment on her most recent post, because she doesn't allow feedback otherwise. We've drafted a sample for you to work from, but please feel free to customize your own if you would like:

"Senator {Insert Name}, please join a bi-partisan group of Senators in fighting to keep the Congo conflict minerals language in the financial reform bill. The tech industry estimates it would cost less than a penny per product to guarantee that their products are free of conflict minerals."

Without strong grassroots support, industry groups might succeed in undoing the progress you've made to end the trade in conflict minerals and bring peace to the people of Congo. Join us today and thank you for your urgent support at this critical time.

Sincerely,

Jenny Russell
Advocacy Director
Enough Project

P.S. If you do not use Facebook, or want to take further action, please contact the Senators' offices directly:

Senator Lincoln - Contact Elizabeth Burks - 202.224.4843

Senator Corker - Contact Courtney Geduldig - 202.224.3344