A new documentary premiering on Netflix this month presents a powerful story of healing, hope and joy. City of Joy follows the first class of women at a revolutionary leadership center in Congo, weaving their journey with that of City of Joy’s founders — playwright, activist founder of V-Day Eve Ensler; globally respected physician and anti-violence activist Dr. Denis Mukwege; and the Congolese humanitarian leader Christine Schuler Deschryver.
When Eve Ensler was invited by Dr. Mukwege to go to the Eastern DRC in 2007 to meet with and learn from women survivors of violence, she focused on what solutions the survivors felt would work in the face of such horrific violence. Violence that was aimed at innocent victims in a conflict brought about in part by the global companies exploiting the Congo’s natural resources, coltan (used in our mobile phones) and other precious metals.
It was the innocent and targeted victims of this longterm conflict who birthed the idea of the City of Joy, saying what they most wanted was a safe place to live in community so that they could heal and reclaim and rebuild their lives. They were looking for a place to turn their pain into power. And so the "City of Joy," the name the group of survivors that Eve met at Panzi on that first visit had chosen for their community, emerged as an idea. Construction for City of Joy began in August 2009 under the leadership of Christine Schuler Deschryver just down the road from Panzi Hospital in Bukavu.
V-Day opened the City of Joy with a high-profile ceremony in February 2011 and the first class of women began in June 2011. I traveled to Bukavu with Eve for that memorable opening, nearly five years after the funds had been raised, largely by the V-Day board on which I am proud to serve, and activists.
In reality, the same women survivors who envisioned this new kind of community also built it — brick by brick — in the middle of poverty, pain and deprivation. Their struggle is a painful reminder to all who come to Eastern Congo of both the exploitation of colonization and the consequences of conflict in this naturally beautiful and rich country.
With its brightly colored gate and beautiful trees, flowering shrubs and roses, Christine’s vision that this place be a beautiful reminder of the Congo’s fertility and richness — has been realized. Inside the walls, there are residences, a community kitchen, classrooms, a computer center, and even a fitness center now. Along with medical and mental therapies, there are a range of options for skills training and also an organic garden whose fresh yield is shared with the populations around City of Joy. The garden was so productive that now the City of Joy also owns and farms a 320 hectare farm (V-World Farm) that provides food for City of Joy and surrounding communities. There are also solar panels, donated and installed by volunteers (including my husband, Scott, with Robert, his awesomely talented Kenya partner in this venture) which protects City of Joy from the frequent power outages in Eastern Congo.
Conceived, owned and run by local Congolese, the City of Joy is a touchstone of V-Day’s global programs. The City of Joy has flourished, healing women from their past trauma through therapy, life skills classes and the essential ingredients needed to move forward in life — love and community. Serving 90 survivors of gender violence aged 18 to 30 at a time, the City of Joy has graduated over 1,100 women leaders since it opened. Most have returned to their communities, newly prepared to be transformational leaders, fighting back against the culture of violence created by a tragic history of racism, colonialism, exploitation, and misogyny. A history that continues today, in part, because of a lack of understanding and knowledge among Americans and others about what is happening on the ground and what is possible with more global interests and support.
The documentary film, directed by Madeleine Gavin, tells the story of the first class of graduates at the City of Joy. We follow the women and learn about their past, their fears and their hopes for the future. One of the extraordinary survivors is Jane, 30, who survived unthinkable violence and was healed during her time at the City of Joy. Her story guides us through the film.
I strongly recommend watching City of Joy, premiering on Netflix on Friday, Sept. 7. When you consider the fact that violence against women impacts one out of three women on the planet — over one billion women and girls who will be survivors during their lifetimes — the life lessons these women teach us are universal and what V-Day has learned about turning pain into power and survivors into leaders is replicable as a model. Our dream, now, is that this documentary will inspire other City of Joys as they are needed in so many places in the world today.