Photo courtesy of Chelsea Hudson Photography

“There is no greater agony,” says poet Maya Angelou, “than bearing an untold story inside you.” It has been five years since Lynne Hybels and I, along with five friends met a woman who asked us to tell the world her story. It is good to reflect on how her words, given to us in a painful and yet beautiful moment, have become a mandate. Her story takes place in one of the most dangerous places in the world to be a woman: The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Rich in minerals and natural resources, yet the poorest country in the world, a woman in the Congo is raped almost every minute. In a country plagued by decades of war, rape is cheaper than bullets.

Yet Congo’s crucible has produced hauntingly beautiful stories of hope too. We traveled with World Relief on a mission originally called Ten for Congo. How could we know that an original ten would multiply exponentially into what is now One Million Thumbprints, our grassroots movement to help women who live in war zones? Sitting on the concrete floors of the rebel occupied, mineral rich territory of Rutshuru. we listened for hours to stories of women who survived brutal rape. It was here we met Esperance, whose name means hope. “Tell my story,” she implored, “Tell my story to the world.” Then signing her name on a release form in the most human and personal way she knew how, by dipping her thumb in ink and stamping her plea on a page with her name printed underneath.

Upon meeting her, our eyes took in only the obvious: orange shirt stained with work; pink and blue tie dye skirt wrapped around a very tiny waist; white head scarf with a grey bow; and neon green flip flops with white daisies. High cheekbones, deep set eyes, her lips pulled tight, her feet planted and calloused like the roots of a tree. She was the first of 11 to speak. Eyes downcast, hands folded at her abdomen, she told us her name, her age, and the number of children under her care. She is 50. She has four children. She unfolded her story, slowly, opening each sentence to the light that filtered through the windows of the remote village church where we sat.

Esperance and her husband had set out to find cooking wood. “It must be done,” she said, “even though it is dangerous.” They met militia soldiers in the bush; each man carried a machete tucked inside his fatigues, and each man had a gun. In a clearing, the soldiers bound the hands of Esperance and her husband, when her husband resisted, she instinctively threw her hands to the top of her head in surrender. She knew what the soldiers would do. First they shot her husband and then they threw their fists at her face. She was thrown to the ground, stripped her clothes, and raped. When they were done, they left her in the forest, where she remained for three days — torn, bleeding and unable to walk.

She did not say how she was eventually found. She did not say how she struggled at the hospital with the month-long treatment for the prevention of HIV, pregnancy and STDs. She said only that the violence she endured was so physically devastating it could not be fully repaired with surgery. She would have despaired if it were not for pastors who sent a local caregiver, Mama Odele, who co-leads a recovery program with other volunteer counselors. The counselors cleaned her, clothed her and took her to the hospital for a rape treatment. When she returned home, they visited her, brought her children food and helped her find work. She said it was their kindness that reminded her she was still a human being.

As she finished her story, the shadow of pain slowly eased, and the tightness of her lips relaxed into a smile. Still human. Still a woman. Still a sister.

Five years later, still inspired by Esperance’s mandate and thumbprint, we not only support women suffering the affects of war in DRC and South Sudan in partnership with World Relief. More recently we are supporting Syrian refugees, all women, living in the crowded, makeshift camps of Beqaa Valley in Lebanon.

What kind of support do we give? Glad you asked! Our response revolves around two kinds of “currency” that power our work; two ways that you can make your mark for women in war zones: thumbprints and funds.

Make Your Mark with Thumbprints

To date we have collected nearly 10,000 thumbprints; we’re just beginning. Why thumbpints? Thumbprints are the “currency” that drives our advocacy. A thumbprint represents YOU, your story of support for helping women in war zones survive, stabilize and eventually sustain grassroots peace. Like Esperance, giving your thumbprint is giving part of yourself to identify with the pain and joy found in the stories of women living in war. When Esperance gave her thumbprint, we added ours, and then those of our friends, then family, and so many others. We have collected thumbprints from women’s groups, book clubs, bake sales, Colleges and Universities, church events, seminaries, recovery groups, conferences, student from Kindergarten to graduate, boy scouts, girl scouts, Rotary Clubs, athletic teams, and even my personal favorite—a group of Nun’s! (We call them our “nunprints”J) When you give your thumbprint, you join thousands of peacemakers who are fighting one of the most difficult problems we face in the world today— violence against women caught in conflict. One Million Thumbprints began with one thumbprint, and will end with millions. But your thumbprint is not just a message of solidarity. Each time we reach a milestone of thumbprints collected—10,000, 20,000, 100,000 and more–we will share with the members of the USAID Office of Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment as well as our US Ambassador to the UN. Our desire is to “break the silence” and encourage the US and the UN to actively renew their support and work towards the goals defined in the U.S. National Action Plan on Women, Peace and Security established by the recently defunded US Department of State Office of Global Women’s Issues, as well as the defunded Office of . Your mark will advocate for the tangible change only the way such a valuable and personal currency can.

To date, we have raised well over $250,000.00 to fund programs through well vetted, local, grassroots implementing partners in three of the most dangerous places to be a woman – the Democratic Republic of Congo, South Sudan and Syria. The programs we support must meet our three essential criteria:

Protecting women and ensuring the care of survivors.

Providing women a seat at the peacemaking table to help bring stability.

Promoting sustained educational development and economic empowerment for women in conflict zones.

Our implementing partners help ensure survival for women experiencing violence in war zones through emergency relief in the form of immediate food, clothing, and shelter. Because sexual violence is often used against women during war, emergency relief also includes rape or sexual violence treatment, trauma assistance and medical support. Protecting women and ensuring the care of survivors is essential. They actively train women leaders within their communities in conflict resolution skills, trauma care, mediation techniques as a means of stabilizing their community and preventing future violence against the vulnerable. If women are not included in this peace building process, gender-based violations in times of conflict will not be given proper attention and consideration. They promote sustainable, long-term solutions for peace in war-torn regions must include economic and educational development opportunities that empower women. Programs often look different in different conflict zones, even in the same geographic region. They include community micro-savings, microfinance, farming co-ops, agribusiness, as well as refugee care and education leading to resettlement.

Esperance’s story was the first we heard that day five years ago. To date, have listened, noted and told in some form over 100 women’s stories. They each share an unfolding story that gives us hope and confidence in our response. Esperance was given immediate emergency relief in the form of clothing, medical care, and shelter. She receives trauma counseling and hopes to be trained as a trauma counselor in the future. She and those supporting her are directly involved in providing stability and ongoing sustainable progress in her community. She represents the hope fueling our desire to see more women protected and empowered to bring peace to their communities.

Stories that end like this bring great joy to our community of peacemakers!

Our blog will be a nerve center for answering our mandate to tell women’s stories to the world. The stories inside us transform from debilitating agony to power houses of change when they are heard, felt deeply and shared widely. We pray you will become an agent of change as you share, give, advocate, and make your mark.