In a village called Kibati, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, stands a brown single-room building. Inside, a cluster of men and women sit on benches in a circle. One by one women stand up and speak. Their voices are strong. Every now and then a joke is made and people laugh. Some women cry as they talk and hold one another. A man speaks angrily as he punches his fist into his hand. Children hide behind the legs of their mothers or sit on their laps. Babies nurse and then are passed off to fathers to sleep. Eventually, horrifically, the purpose of this gathering becomes clear: Every woman in this room has been raped. Every one. Even the ones that don’t come up to my waist.
There are girls here who can’t be six years old, and only slightly older ones carrying children of their own, on their backs and inside their bellies, some at the same time. They share their stories:
“I was walking for water at night when I met a man, and he dragged me into the woods and raped me. My parents wouldn’t let me back into the house after that.”
“At first I tried not to tell anyone what happened, but then I realized I was pregnant, and I had to tell.”
“I have to see my rapist every day. I feel haunted by him. I know he could come back into my house at any time.”
As shocking as it is to be in this room, the stories of these women are anything but unusual. The Congo has endured decades of civil unrest and instability; it has been called the rape capital of the world. More than 1,000 women are sexually violated here every day. Much of this violence is the result of 20 years of wars in which rape was used as a weapon, to traumatize women and to destabilize communities. So, no, what’s astonishing here isn’t the large collection of rape survivors in one place; it’s that these women have the courage to tell their stories—and to seek justice. This is a local chapter of Dynamique des Femmes Juristes, a grassroots organization that helps survivors prosecute the perpetrators. The testimony these women give today may help put their rapists in jail. Ten, even five years ago, that kind of retribution would have been unthinkable. But through the work of this organization alone, more than 125 women’s cases were brought to court last year.
And the person who helped make it possible? Ben Affleck.
Yes, that Ben Affleck. The same guy headlining the Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice blockbuster. The same guy who made every tabloid cover when his 10-year marriage to Jennifer Garner ended last summer. But before all that, Affleck wanted to start something—something good. And that something endures every day here in the Congo.
About 10 years ago, Affleck was a new father (Violet was just a baby), with some major movies (Good Will Hunting, Armageddon) in his rearview mirror but nothing hugely professionally exciting on the horizon. “I felt like I was always chasing the next job, singing for my supper,” Affleck says. “I didn’t feel like I had anything that I could point to and say—and I know this is a cliché—‘I gave back; here are the footprints I left in the sand.’”
Around that time Affleck read Philip Gourevitch’s book about the genocide in Rwanda, We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families. Moved, he began to learn more about the mid-1990s conflict and how it had led more than a million refugees to flee Rwanda for the Congo, triggering more tribal conflicts and a series of epic wars. Children were turned into soldiers and forced to kill one another and their own families. Sexual violence was rampant, with women raped and cast out of their communities in disgrace. By the time Affleck learned about the situation, three and a half million people had died. “And it was still happening,” he says. “And I didn’t know about it, and almost nobody in America knew about it.”
So in 2007 Affleck went on a fact-finding trip to some of the most conflict-ravaged regions of Africa, including Rwanda, Sudan, Kenya, and finally the Congo. “This was when there was still a lot of fighting and it was still a little bit scary—I expected to see people hiding under couches, metaphorically,” says Affleck. “But what I saw was people trying to work and keep their families upright. After the child soldiers and the sexual violence and the not-good-enough hospitals and not-good-enough anything, they were rising. I was blown away by that.”
And their stories were unforgettable. “I sat with a woman who had been raped multiple times before she was 12,” he says. “She said this to me like she was reciting a grocery list—like it was nothing at all. Can you imagine?” Affleck pauses. “I have daughters,” he says. “Ones I fully intend to keep away from all boys until they are 25, by the way. How can something like this not burn itself into my brain forever? How can we not do everything we can?” So he decided not to be just another guy who learned a terrible thing and moved on.
During the flight back to Los Angeles, Affleck and philanthropic consultant Whitney Williams had the first of many conversations that would eventually lead to the Eastern Congo Initiative (ECI). The concept was simple: Create an organization that empowers Congolese people to rebuild their nation. “We thought, Why don’t we work with the people who actually know the militia or who have children who have been taken by them?” says Affleck. “And who know where the women are who have been ostracized by their villages because they were raped—why don’t we work directly with those people?”
Almost nine years after that trip, with the help of Williams (who would become his cofounder), Affleck’s footprints are now all over the country; ECI has funded more than 90 projects, in everything from farming cooperatives to vocational training. But Affleck has taken a particular interest in helping women. “The Congo has trillions of dollars in mineral wealth and enough arable land to feed a third of the world,” says Affleck. “But I have come to believe that the most precious resource in the country is its women. Congolese women are incredible—what they have been through? Forget it. I’d never survive it. Nothing puts my own life and circumstances into perspective like the lessons I learn from them.” ECI’s impact is growing: The foundation has funded programs that have improved health care for more than 23,000 women, have helped bring 600 gender-based violence cases to court, and trained more than 50 female journalists last year alone. “I think ECI is putting its money where its mouth is,” says renowned human rights activist John Prendergast. “There is lots of rhetoric about the importance of empowering women…[but] ECI provides critical resources to groups that are leading the transformation of Congolese society.”
Affleck and Williams now work with a team of 10, most of whom are based in the Congo. In the United States ECI promotes the potential of the region through creative projects and good old-fashioned diplomacy—Affleck himself has testified at congressional hearings four times. “People can have this view about Africa—that it is people lying around with flies in their eyes and distended bellies,” says Affleck. “But that’s just not true. These people want not only to live but to thrive and to succeed.” And that is what ECI is helping them do. “This isn’t sexy work. It’s really hard and long-term,” says Prendergast. “But it was pretty clear from the outset that Ben and Whitney were in it for the long haul…. I think as the Congo turns a corner in the coming years to a peaceful, democratic future, ECI will have been a major contributor.” Adds Dr. Denis Mukwege, founder of Panzi Hospital in Bukavu: “Ben Affleck is helping Congolese women know their rights and fight for them. … He knows what should be done and what you have to work hard on. It’s not surface; it’s deep.”
After the justice center we travel to Goma, the capital of the North Kivu province, to visit AFEM, an organization supported by ECI that trains women journalists. The road is bustling with cars and livestock and men and women on wooden scooters called chukudus. We pass children playing with toys made from tin cans (an airplane, a guitar) and women selling everything from fruit to clothing to a pile of tiny, brightly colored coffins (I am told that there used to be many more coffins for sale, when things were worse). When we arrive at the office, I meet AFEM’s Goma program manager, an intense young woman named Douce. “For a long time bad things were happening in the villages, but nobody knew about it,” she says. “The reporters were men, and they didn’t report on women’s issues or sexual violence.” With the help of ECI funding, AFEM now operates all over the region and just launched its own radio station. During our visit, Douce asks me, “What is it like to be a woman in America? Do women get raped there too?” Yes, I tell her. They do. But now women in the Congo can do what women in the United States do: share their stories.
For the women of AFEM and elsewhere in the Congo, to have a guy on their side behind all of this matters. “It sends an important signal when men stand up on behalf of the rights of women and girls,” says Rachel Vogelstein, director of the women and foreign policy program at the Council on Foreign Relations. “Male role models can make all the difference in changing harmful cultural norms.” Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, United Nations under-secretary-general and executive director of U.N. Women, agrees: “We wouldn’t be where we are today if it weren’t for the passion, drive, and determination of all the women activists through history. But to go as far as we want, to full gender equality, that’s going to take the combined energy and will of both men and women.”
The Congo is a complicated place, and the work undertaken by ECI won’t be finished quickly, but Affleck, Williams, and the team at ECI aren’t discouraged. In recent years the Congo has become one of the fastest-growing economies in the world. “It is as simple as this: When there are pockets of peace, commerce thrives,” says Affleck. “I used to come home daunted by all we had to do. The contrast between Congo and my everyday life can be jarring. But now I see how similar we all are.… It’s not true that we can’t help change things. We can.” He pauses. “These women are such badasses. With a little help, there will be no stopping them.”
Genevieve Roth is Glamour’s senior special projects director.
Want to Help the Most Resilient Women on Earth? Here’s how.
Donate: Ten dollars to the Eastern Congo Initiative (easterncongo.org) helps fund the AFEM radio program and Dynamique des Femmes Juristes as well as maternal health care and school programs.
Snack: You were going to buy chocolate anyhow, right? Seattle-based Theo’s ECI chocolate bars (theochocolate.com/eci) help support the work of hundreds of Congolese farmers.
Sip: “Congo used to grow tons more coffee,” says Affleck. Now ECI has partnered with Starbucks to bring Congolese beans to select locations stateside.
At the Warner Bros. panel at CinemaCon in Las Vegas Tuesday evening, CEO Kevin Tsujihara first took the stage to give a general rundown of upcoming movies from the studio. After saying they have “at least 10” DC Comics movies coming in the next five years., Tsujihara finally gave studio confirmation to a long-rumored product.
“We’re working with Ben Affleck on a standalone Batman movie,” the CEO announced.
This is the first confirmation from a Warner Bros. executive that the movie exists, though there have been little quotes and hints here and there about the film. The rumors that Affleck would be writing and starring in a Batman film, possibly directing as well, have been going almost since he was cast in the role. More recently, it was said that he and Geoff Johns, CCO of DC Entertainment, were working on the script together.
That rumor was backed up by a talent agency CEO who said “there’s a script [Affleck]’s written that’s a really cool [Batman] idea.” Affleck himself said that “Geoff Johns is a brilliant guy. He and I are working together on something and I really am excited about it, and I love him, he’s the best.”
Ben Affleck, Amy Adams and Henry Cavill were on Graham Norton last Friday, here are screen captures and the video. Thanks AmyAdamsFan.com for the Captures!