Having survived unimaginable violence and sexual abuse, a community of women in the Democratic Republic of Congo is working to recover and re-empower themselves in spite of the conflict that, in some cases, almost killed them. In doing so, they're able to reinforce the idea that there is joy on the other side of trauma and there is love on the other side of tragedy, for others who share similar stories.
Madeline Gavin’s Netflix documentary City Of Joy takes us to Bukavu in the east of the DRC where this community was purposefully built around the women who sought refuge there.
Dr Denis Mukwege founded the Panzi hospital in the city of Bukavu when his previous clinic was destroyed in the war. The first person to be treated there was a victim of sexual violence – a woman who had been raped and shot. Dr Mukwege initially thought that it was a horrific standalone event but as numbers grew and more women arrived to be treated, he soon realised that rape was being used as a weapon of war by the militia. Women were being victimised, attacked and alienated from their own communities.
Together with women’s rights activist Christine Schuler Deschryver and Eve Ensler, founder of the V-Day initiative and author of The Vagina Monologues, Dr Mukwege helped to set up a huge gated neighbourhood known as City of Joy, where women are welcome to stay for a period of six months to heal, both physically and emotionally, with the support of other survivors.
"We asked the girls ‘what do you want?’ and they said they wanted a place where [they] can stay and be in power," explains Schuler Deschryver in the documentary. "And then we started to put all the pieces together. That's how City of Joy started." From self-defence classes and group therapy to being encouraged to look, touch and speak about their bodies without shame or fear, City of Joy nurtures Congolese women who have suffered abuse during the ongoing conflict. They're taught to love themselves again after being traumatised into believing that they weren't worthy of respect or life.
The war broke out in the DRC in the late '90s. Through City of Joy we're given insight into how fraught the mining conflict has been and how little is being done about it internationally. The country is rich in valuable "conflict materials" – like tin, gold, tungsten and coltan – which are traded across the world to make consumer products like mobile phones. The realisation that so many tech companies (big ones, like Samsung, Sony, Canon, etc) benefit from the crisis born from militia taking over villages and battling over control of the mines, only makes the trauma faced by Congolese women even more agonising.
City of Joy's mantra is to turn pain into power, though. The resilience displayed by the women embraced within the community they've made for themselves is deeply moving, and they're using that strength to effect change. "This love, this desire to fight for others even when things for you have been completely destroyed," says Dr Mukwege. "I believe that this is the symbol of the struggle of the Congolese woman."
There’s no skirting around how upsetting parts of the documentary are. They discuss their experiences of sexual assault in some detail and nothing will quite overshadow the abominable reality of what has been endured by thousands of women in the 11 years that City of Joy has been running, let alone before. But at the core of City of Joy is a message of love, sisterhood and reform. The centre's founders want these women to be confident in speaking about what happened to them, to tell their stories so that other women will know that they are not alone and, once they leave the City of Joy, to go back to their communities and become leaders of a better future. "We are here to give joy," Dr Mukwege tells Ensler in some archive footage of the pair travelling to the site where the City of Joy would later be built. "And the women don’t have to be unhappy forever," Ensler responds.
City of Joy is available on Netflix now
If you have experienced sexual violence of any kind, please visit Rape Crisis or call 0808 802 9999.