For most people, retiring to a Santa Barbara beachfront home with a 180 degree view of the Channel Islands would be enough, but for Dr. Victoria Bentley, founder and president of the S.B.-based nonprofit Empower Congo Women (ECW), it wasn’t. Bentley was sitting at her desk one afternoon when she saw a television special that set in motion the project that has now become her livelihood.
“About four years ago I’d seen Lisa Ling, a former ABC correspondent, do a piece where she went into the Congo and interviewed these women who’d been raped and tortured, and it broke my heart and I immediately wanted to help, because I’m a trauma psychologist,” said Bentley. “So I Googled it one day, and I found an agency in Bukavu, Congo. I talked to them on the phone and I just went. The Congo is the worst place in the world to be a woman; 60 percent of the women there are raped or sexually assaulted.”
After founding ECW in 2009, Bentley has worked on the ground with Congolese women and children to help them overcome incidents of trauma caused by rape and sexual abuse committed by Rwandan soldiers stationed in the area. Partnering with local Congolese organizations, ECW has already impacted the lives of females in the Congo and has so far sent over 200 kids to school, started sustainable agriculture farms, and established a psychologist training center for women survivors.
“We have a holistic approach with the women. We send their kids to school, we do trauma counseling, and we’ve also taught them how to do it so they can be trauma counselors themselves,” explained Bentley. “These women have what I call complicated trauma; they’re often kidnapped and gang raped then thrown out of their community. It’s unbelievable trauma and yet it’s not treated directly. Our approach is a more in-depth process.”
This holistic approach is what differentiates ECW from other nongovernmental organizations. Instead of just counseling them or dumping empty donations on their governments or villages, said Bentley, the group actually teaches the women the skills to become trauma counselors themselves and allow them to lift their communities from within, long after the volunteers have left the country.
On April 16, as part of a fundraiser and benefit for ECW, Bentley spoke at the home of Montecito resident Neil Mazer. The event, which included a daytime garden tour and an evening reception, was put on by the Montecito Rotary Club, a philanthropic organization that has contributed to ECW’s success.
The Rotary Club is dedicated to service both locally and internationally, say representatives, and all donations to the club go into charitable work and organizations. Bentley spoke to the Rotary Club about the ECW’s newest endeavor, the Peace Market, funded entirely by the Rotarians.
“What we’re going to do is participate in the building of a big outdoor market, like a pavilion, so when it rains people can get under the awnings,” said Bentley. “There used to be a market there before the Hutus came and it’s going to be a big event — we’ve even got the King involved. We’re hoping to encourage trade between Rwanda and the Congo and stabilize these conflict-ridden areas.”
Bentley will return to Africa this June with a group of volunteers to continue the construction of the Peace Market, which is already being assembled in the town of Mumosho on the Ruzizi River.
As of now, ECW works specifically with Congolese women; however, Bentley will be partnering with a colleague to begin counseling men and their families to gain a deeper understanding of why they ostracize the women from the tribes after they are sexually violated. She hopes to help put the families back together after they have undergone the traumatic fallout of war crimes and violence.
“The soldiers are absolutely vicious,” said Bentley. “They try and force male children to have sex with their mothers, and if they don’t, they kill them. The culture is in absolute chaos, and the whole society is unraveling, so we’re trying to rebuild it.”
“It’s not just women; it’s their families we’re really trying to help. We want to build five girls’ schools. The first one we have a partial Rotary grant for already, and I have 45 women and girls graduating this June,” Bentley proudly explained.
Bentley encourages anyone interested in getting involved with ECW to contact her through its Web site, empowercongowomen.org, or to read about the work-in-progress by following her blog at healingtraumainthecongo.com.