After her best friend was murdered in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 1998, Christine Schuler Deschryver dedicated her life to ending violence in her region and empowering the women of Congo.
Deschryver is the co-founder and director of City of Joy which is both a leadership center and sanctuary for women in war-torn Congo. Its mission was captured in the 2018 documentary “City of Joy” (currently available to stream on Netflix).
At TEDWomen in Atlanta this week, Deschryver gave a TED Talk on the ways City of Joy transforms “pain into power” and helps Congolese women take leadership positions throughout the country.
“City of Joy is a physical place, but it is also a desire, a vision, a metaphor for turning pain into power,” Deschryver said in her Talk. “And by power, we mean care, compassion, community.”
How City of Joy Supports Survivors of Sexual Violence
City of Joy is located in Bukavu in the Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. Since it opened in 2011, the center has served 90 women at a time – from ages 18 to 30 – for six-month spans. 1,987 Women from the program have gone on to become restaurant owners, farmers, educators, entrepreneurs and more.
Deschryver said that she opened City of Joy in the most “impoverished, impossible place in the world” and succeeded against all odds.
“This may look like a miracle but it is based on a set of hard-earned guiding principles,” said Deschryver. “I share them with you in the hope that they may inspire you.”
City of Joy’s Guiding Principles:
1. “Rebirth is possible.”
Deschryver says that the living principle of City of Joy is the belief that there is “no woman, no matter how hurt or validated, broken or lost who cannot be restored.”
Deschryver went on to tell the story of a woman who had been brutally assaulted in Congo by a group of men and still held onto a dream of helping those in her community as she recovered in the hospital.
In 2011, she joined City of Joy’s first class of graduates and left the program armed with new skills and renewed confidence. After the program, she was able to read and write, buy a plot of land, construct a small house, and rebuild her life.
The graduate renamed herself Jane and now works for the organization as a staff member.
Deschryver says that Jane is “a woman of magnificent energy, vision, and lifeforce” and is proof that even those who have suffered unimaginable trauma “can become the most visionary leaders.”
2. “Grassroots women know what they need.”
Deschryver emphasized that City of Joy succeeds because the women who run it actually live and work in the community they serve.
“The women of Congo envisioned the City of Joy and they are the ones who run it,” Deschryver continued. “Our sisters in the West help by providing resources and sharing our story by being wings at our back.”
Deschryver explained that the best way to aid a grassroots organization is to voice support, share stories, and place funds directly in the hands of organizers.
“[Grassroots women] don’t need direction or coercion from outside funders,” Deschryver said. “They need resources and respect.”
As City of Joy has grown and expanded, Deschryver said that additional funding has empowered them to “take risks” and reshape their movement from one of “social service to social justice.”
3. “Women heal in community.”
Deschryver explained that many women who enter therapy at City of Joy reside in violent communities that have only compounded their trauma.
“As long as the community remains ill, sexist, or violent, women remain oppressed and unseen,” said Deschryver.
Deschryver explained that group therapy is a critical tenet of the care center's mission to rebuild a sense of community.
“At City of Joy, women come to understand that their healing is intertwined with their sister’s healing,” said Deschryver. “The collective healing of women leads to radical political awakening. It teaches women … how to lead by investing in the whole community.”
4. “The Earth is a central part of our healing.”
As they expanded, City of Joy acquired 350 acres of farmland, which has become foundational to therapeutic care at the center as women “turn pain to power to planting.”
“I grew up with a deep love and respect for the earth and a vision for connecting the healing of women with the healing of the earth,” said Deschryver.
On the farmlands, the women learn how to grow a range of foods including cassava, rice, avocados, mangos, sweet potatoes, and beans. They take care of pigs and cows, harvest and dry fish, and make honey from beehives.
“The farm is a living classroom and we have witnessed the profound healing of survivors as they connect with and cherish the Earth,” said Deschryver.
5. “Art, theater, music, dance are critical to recovery.”
At City of Joy, song, art, dance, and creativity are vital to the survivors' recovery and further build a sense of community.
Deschryver said: “Dance is central to healing as it allows women to feel the expanse of their power and energy. To begin to love their bodies. To move in community. To express their creativity. To share community tribal dances and remove cultural barriers.”
Deschryver said that in many ways, dancing and singing can be just as critical as learning new skills and opening up in group therapy.
“As we move our bodies, we move the trauma out and bring in the new energy. We sing together and dance throughout every day,” Deschryver said. “1,987 women have turned poison into medicine, isolation into community, shame into self love, silence into story.”