Photo: Mackenzie Stroh
Jennifer Williams was thrilled the Sunday morning her husband said he would take care of their 3-year-old and 4-month-old sons so she could have some quiet time to herself. She sat down on the sofa with a mug of coffee and The New York Times. But her giddiness quickly disappeared when she read a front-page story about the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where, as a result of a civil war that has ravaged the country since 1998, soldiers from foreign militias and the Congolese army have been raping, torturing, and mutilating tens of thousands of women and girls every year. Many of the victims are so brutally attacked that their digestive and reproductive systems are left beyond repair. "It got me," she says. "I couldn't move on. I think having just had a baby made me feel this was intolerable—and people needed to say so."
She e-mailed the reporter, Jeffrey Gettleman, asking what she could do to help. Then she e-mailed old friends from college, new friends from the neighborhood, and former colleagues from work to draw their attention to the story. Within a few days, Gettleman wrote back with the name of Panzi, a local hospital that Jen could send money to, and the contact information for two aid workers familiar with its needs. Jen e-mailed the aid workers and forwarded Gettleman's e-mail to her friends. Wasn't it awesome to have heard back from him, she asked, and what were their thoughts on trying to help?
A conversation was started. It continued by e-mail, telephone, at stolen moments during school drop-off, pick-up, and playdates: Let's send money to the hospital. Let's throw a party to raise money for the hospital. But wait, we can't ask people to wire money to an African bank account. Better to help the hospital through an established charity.
One of the aid workers wrote back suggesting Jen contact Avocats Sans Frontières, a group of lawyers and legal professionals working to end impunity for rapists in the Congo, as well as V-Day, the global movement started by playwright Eve Ensler to stop violence against women and girls. Jeffrey Gettleman added the name of a United Nations officer in Africa who was closely following the issue. Jen contacted everyone, and was slightly stunned when they all replied. She had worked on Wall Street for 13 years before quitting her job to take care of her son. "When I used to make calls from work, I would say, 'Hi, this is Jen from Morgan Stanley' or 'Hi, this is Jen from Barclays.' Now I was just Jen," she says.
But she was passionate and impressed people with her eagerness to learn. "She did not pretend to be an expert on the Congo," says Kate Burns, senior policy officer for gender equality at the United Nations. "She asked a lot of questions. Getting the UN to open its doors is not easy, but Jen was very enthusiastic, and I think people like her—regular citizens, not involved in political organizations—have a special role to play in getting others to open their hearts and pockets." The UN agreed to co-host a fundraising event. So did V-Day. Eve Ensler agreed to speak. The filmmaker Lisa F. Jackson volunteered to show a clip from her Sundance Award–winning film, The Greatest Silence: Rape in the Congo.