Congo rape victims take to catwalk to show female strength

by Nita Bhalla | @nitabhalla | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Monday, 25 November 2019 16:02 GMT

Survivors of sexual violence rehearse ahead of a fashion show in Bukavu in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo on Nov 18, 2019. Photo Courtesy: Esther Nsapu

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"When I was designing for them, I didn't see victims. I just see incredibly strong women," said designer Tolu Coker

By Nita Bhalla

NAIROBI, Nov 25 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Raped in war and now walking tall, survivors of sexual violence take to the catwalk on Monday to model a collection of fabrics designed to show strength and solidarity in the face of abuse.

The 15 Congolese women - modelling in the capital Kinshasa - joined forces with Dutch textile firm Vlisco and five African designers to mark Monday's International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women.

"When I was designing for them, I didn't see victims. I just see incredibly strong women who have really begun to live after what they have been through and that is what is so powerful and what the fabrics and clothes try to represent," said British-Nigerian designer Tolu Coker, whose clothes are worn by Rihanna.

Rape has been widely documented as a weapon of war in eastern Congo, which remains largely controlled by militia groups since the end of a 1998-2003 war in which foreign armies and rebels vied for control over mineral resources.

"While we know about war, I don't think many of us really understand the lasting impact it has on women," said Coker.

The central African nation was ranked amongst the 10 most dangerous countries to be a woman by a Thomson Reuters Foundation poll in 2018.

Their plight is just one case in the United Nations spotlight on Monday, with events scheduled worldwide to draw attention to rape in war, domestic violence and female abuse.


The models at Monday's show came from the City of Joy charity, which was set up to help survivors of sexual violence in conflict and show women there can be life after rape.

"I want the collection to spread, wide and far, the message of strength of Congolese women, in particular, and world's women in general," said Jane, 34, raped multiple times by militias.

"I want it to be a tool which will raise consciousness about gender equity and about women as strong, beautiful and amazing."

City of Joy was opened in 2011 by Nobel prize-nominated gynaecologist Denis Mukwege, Congolese activist Christine Schuler Deschryver and U.S. playwright Eve Ensler, best known for her play 'The Vagina Monologues'.

The charity - the subject of a Netflix film in September - helps survivors overcome pain and stigma and emerge as confident leaders through trauma counselling and training. So far, more than 1,100 women have passed through its programme.

The collection's five fabrics carry vibrant floral prints in bold hues, made by Vlisco and inspired by the women's own lives.

"The collection aims to capture their journey from the darkest of places to a place of hope and love. It also portrays the great strength that comes from sisterhood," said Vlisco designer Gabriela Sanchez.

(Reporting by Nita Bhalla @nitabhalla, Editing by Lyndsay Griffiths. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights and climate change. Visit

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