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Lisa Shannon’s Long Run for Congolese Women Doesn’t End

Juan Carlos

DIRECTOR OF SOCIAL IMPACT @ PARTICIPANT MEDIA

 

After Lisa Shannon’s father passed away she mourned, reflected on her life, and reconsidered the decisions she’d made up to that point. One afternoon, a segment on The Oprah Winfrey Show discussing violence in DR Congo became a watershed moment, leading her to become an activist for war-affected Congolese women. Since Lisa’s lone 30-mile trail run in 2005, thousands have joined Run for Congo Women, an international movement that has sponsored more than 1,400 Congolese women.

It is a widely held misconception that hunger and extreme poverty will always be with us. The cost of these misperceptions is one life every three seconds—meaning 30,000 die needlessly every day. 

How did you suddenly get inspired to help women in DR Congo? Above and beyond seeing The Oprah Winfrey Show, where were you emotionally at the time? What was the tipping point? Why Women for Women?

On a personal level, following my father’s death, I went through a period of reflection on my life, my lost dreams of making a difference in favor of working my financial plan…and my life felt quite empty. That’s when I saw The Oprah Show. I was shocked the deadliest war since World War II was raging, and I had never even heard of it. Women for Women’s program gave me a concrete way to engage, with tangible results, in an otherwise overwhelming situation. So I decided to go for it.

What did it take to get out of your comfort zone and become an activist? Why are you so passionate about this issue and this community?

I resisted the label “activist” for years, because to me it implied I was engaged in Congo as a lifestyle. Not so! But for me, I think it was a simple opportunity to push beyond my comfort zone while changing the lives of what I hoped would be 30 women. I just focused on that one concrete task, with no concept of where it might lead.

Courtesy Every 3 Seconds

How are women in the Congo treated?

Congo is considered one of the worst places on earth for women. With a metastasized culture of impunity, gang rape, sexual slavery, [and] torture are all commonplace. Beyond sexual violence, women and children are displaced, deprived of a livelihood, and nearly all the women I met had had children die, often due to insecurity and displacement. They feel no man with a gun is on their side; no one will protect them.

What was the first letter you wrote to a Congolese survivor? Who did you first sponsor? Are you still friends with her? How did she affect your life?

Writing the first letter can be so awkward. I didn’t know what to say, so I put it off. Months passed, and I hadn’t heard from her either, until one day three letters arrived. Xaverine, a mother, farmer, churchgoer, had her husband abducted and held as a cook in the forest. I felt terrible I hadn’t written, so I fired off a long letter with stickers, postcards, a description of myself and my life while offering words of encouragement to her. She had long since graduated from the program when I first met her in 2007. It was a too-brief visit, so in 2008, I went back and spent several hours with her, getting to know her better. In 2010, she participated in our Run for Congo Women in Congo!

Courtesy Every 3 Seconds

When did you start Run for Congo Women, and why did you build it?

I did my first lone run in September 2005. I only intended to do the onetime, 30 mile trail run. But as I trained, I searched the web for other U.S.-based Congo activists. The field was essentially blank. Yet I discovered that when people knew about Congo, they cared and wanted to get involved. I started hearing from other women who wanted to do their own run, so it grew from there.

Could you tell me the story of Generose?

Generose was among the first 30 women sponsored through donations to the run, and matched with me personally. When I got to Congo, I learned her story: A militia, the FDLR, came to her house demanding money. She and her husband turned over what they had, but the militia wanted more. They started to beat her husband, so she screamed. As punishment, they shot her husband in the head and cut off her leg with machetes. They then threw her leg in the fire and commanded that her children eat their mother’s leg. When her son refused, he was killed.

Of course there is much, much more to Generose than this one incident. She has her own home in Bukavu now, runs her own business, and joined the 2010 Run for Congo Women in Congo, running on only one leg!

Why focus on women? What is the opportunity for Congolese women?

Any time any group of people has been written off, it grabs me. I can’t do nothing. Women are consistently marginalized and related to as subhuman, our right to personal safety often regarded by even seemingly progressive policy makers as an optional extra. Yet healthy, safe, educated women are the key to our global future. If you want to stabilize the world, see societies thrive, then women and girls are the best possible investment.

Courtesy Every 3 Seconds

What is Sister Somalia and how did that evolve?

Sister Somalia is a project I cofounded in partnership with Fartun Adan, an amazing Somali woman activist. Together, we created the first sexual violence crisis center in Mogadishu, at first with only support from about 30 women pledging $10 per month. Since, Fartun has grown the program to reach thousands of women and girls, expanded to remote areas around Somalia, and she has become the foremost voice on sexual violence there. I am a huge believer in local ownership. She and her amazing daughter Ilwad now run the program together and manage Sister Somalia. I’m constantly in awe of them!

Do you ever become overwhelmed by where you’ve been and what you’ve seen? In low moments how do you keep going?

Honestly, yes. Motivation to keep going shifts over time, but typically it’s about getting back to basics. The burnout and sense of being overwhelmed comes from taking too much on. So I back up, try to remember why I got into this in the first place—my sisters in Congo and Somalia!—and then pick one simple thing I can do to move forward. If that doesn’t work, running does wonders to clear my head.

What has been your biggest hurdle since you began? Where do you see yourself going from today? At the end of your career, what do you hope your legacy will be?

My biggest hurdle has always been showing up, doing what I can, without any evidence it will matter, often without a road map. Self-doubt creeps in; you feel like maybe all that effort won’t matter at all. Fortunately, over time, I’ve learned that’s just a standard part of the act of making a difference, and more often than not, the successes go far beyond anything you can imagine in those moments.

Now, I am working on laying the groundwork for a campaign to outlaw violence against women worldwide, through a U.N. convention (or other legally binding instrument) on violence against women. Stay tuned…

At the end of my career, the greatest legacy I could ask for would be so-called regular people hearing the story of an ordinary TV watcher like me and deciding to flip on their empathy switch, step up, and change the world, in whatever way feels true to themselves. We all need to stop deferring to policy makers, celebrities, and the ultra-wealthy. The ripple effect of regular folks acting out of compassion will never be measurable, but as we inspire others, the impact is exponential. That’s every bit as true for a stay-at-home mom in Omaha as for a nomadic cowherd in Somalia.

That, and helping to outlaw violence against women worldwide. Come on, guys. It’s 2014!