Racing Toward Human Rights for Women

Stark truths open Women for Women International's Stronger Women, Stronger Nations Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) report, Amplifying Voices of Women in Eastern Congo. "Despite the signing of international peace agreements, a deadly 15 year war continues in DRC. International organizations estimate that between 3.5 and 5.4 million of excess deaths have occurred. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the DRC is 'the worst example of man's inhumanity to women.'"

This past Saturday morning my 2010 racing season ended in a race with the Women for Women International's Run for Congo Women UK team in Greenwich Park, London. Pictured here together we ran in support of acknowledging these harrowing facts, but also to motivate change for Congolese women. Since 1993, Women for Women International has globally supported over 275,000 women with training, over $21 million in direct aid, and over $67 million in micro-credit loans. In June 2010, the organization gained my attention while in South Africa post-Comrades while researching and writing about the public health of women and girls during the 2010 World Cup. Then, I kept thinking to myself, "If this is the continent's best for women, what is the worst?"

The Democratic Republic of Congo. In July, upon arrival back from South Africa to Paris, I pledged to Kate Hughes, Policy and Campaigns Officer for Women for Women International, that I would build Team Congo Paris in support of Run for Congo Women.

A Paris Team's Run for Congo Women

Racing together in the Paris Versailles, 20K de Paris, and finally the 6ème Foulées Villenogarennoises in Parc des Chanteraines, Team Congo Paris surpassed our fundraising goal of 1,000 GBP. This was due to the exceptional work of our top fundraisers and runners Alice Phan and Colleen Obrist along with supporters like the AMPE and the FCA and myriad other amazing male and female runners.

Alice Phan came to Team Congo Paris early on and ran almost every race and supported every endeavor. In fact, she raced beside me on November 7 with Colleen Obrist in the 5K at Parc des Chanteraines asking questions about Colleen's journey to run for Team Congo Paris. Diagnosed with MS in 2008, Colleen's sheer willpower is a testament to overcoming life challenges. In a recent interview, she shared, "People often say that it is too bad what happened to me, what a pity, etc., and yes, having MS is hard, but my problems seem trivial when compared to what some people have to live through in this world on a daily basis. My health situation and my future may be unpredictable, but at least I am not living in abject poverty, or fear that someone in my family is going to die, be raped, tortured, humiliated, or terrorized. There is not much I can do for my disease, but I will help others while I am still able."

On November 7, Alice then also raced beside me and Jennifer Hart in the 10K through pouring rain. With a degree in Women's Studies and a Master's in Sociology and also one in Personal Training, Jennifer, a personal trainer and owner of Hart Total Fitness, was triumphantly running five months after the birth of her second child. Yet, she had resumed running only four weeks after delivery and she completed La Parisienne at 3.5 months post-birth in just 44 minutes.

Years ago, Jennifer first heard stories about Congo while overseeing a series of workshops on gender and war at the University of Toronto. Recently, she shared how they affected her. "Some of the stories would make me cry, make me angry, and make me down-right fed up with the world. When I left school and began working, my charity work dropped and I missed it but didn’t know where to turn to help out in Paris. Then I had a daughter and I remembered some of the horror stories of women and children being raped and killed, and my life changed. I saw a posting by Kate Stence about Run for Congo Women and it took me less than 3 seconds to say, 'I want to be a part of that.'"

A London Team's Run for Congo Women

In Greenwich Park last Sunday, as I walked over to claim my race number in the UK Run for Congo Women's final race of the season, I began looking around for other women and men runners who were also racing with the UK team. Their team had raised over 8,000 GBP. I introduced myself to runners and then met devoted runner Chris Jackson, who has completed 11 marathons for Women for Women for International this year alone. As I stood before him, I took in again how profound I find his efforts.

On November 7, the same day Team Congo Paris raced our final race of the season together, Chris completed the New York City Marathon in 2 hours and 55 minutes. But, he shared how he felt so much support. "Loads of people I didn’t know seemed to know who I was?!? But there was also so many people along the course just telling you to keep going and that you were doing great. This gives you such a boost. I think the best moments were enjoying the views and how quiet, it was on the bridges, because all you could hear was foot-fall, but as you started to get to the other side of the bridge, you’d slowly get hit by this roar from the crowd. I really couldn’t believe how many people were out watching... Absolutely stunning."

That's exactly how I had felt watching the female elites cross the finish line at the Athens Classic Marathon on October 31 while in Greece.

As the first women crossed the finish line, the BBC reporter next to me was taping my ecstatic cheers. Yet, I wanted to share with him that he had to understand that Greece was the marathon's point of origin 2500 years ago. So many of us as athletes run marathons knowing the mythic story of the Greek soldier-runner who was a messenger running from the battlefield of Marathon to Athens to announce the Greek's victory, then died from exhaustion upon arrival. However, what many of us may not know is that every year for the past 28 the Athens Classic Marathon is run in memory of Grigoris Lambrakis, a brilliant athlete, scientist, politician, and pacifist who in April 1963 helped organize the Greece Pacifist Movement. As an advocate of social justice, Lambrikis had participated in myriad international meetings on peace yet his life ended shortly after a march in May 1963 due to deadly beatings.

"Peace and development go hand in hand," according to a campaign message sheet given to me today by Natasha Baranowski, Global Campaign Officer for Women for Women International's Join Me on the Bridge Campaign which advocates that stronger women build bridges of peace. Held on International Women's Day, last year the Join Me on the Bridge Campaign inspired 108 events and attracted around 20,000 participants in about 20 different countries. Next March 8, 2011, marks the 100th Anniversary of International Women's Day.

Overall, what can a runner -- or any individual -- do to help inspire change and help "race" toward human rights for Congolese women? Kate Hughes, coordinator of the London Run for Congo Women events, recently shared her thoughts. "I would ask the runners to keep talking about the conflict in DRC. Just because you have stopped fundraising doesn't mean that you have to stop raising awareness. Make sure that everyone you know, knows that you ran for Run for Congo Women and why it was that you felt so motivated to do that. Tell your friends and family, tell your local radio station or local press, just keep speaking about Congo until the violence and exploitation stops."

On December 5, Chris Jackson races the Luton Marathon, marathon 12, to support Congolese women. You can read about his last race of the 2010 season on his blog. At Gender Across Borders, you can read my article Traversing Truth: Running and Writing Female Rights.

Photo credit: Women for Women International