By Emily Esworthy/IMA World Health

Valentine’s Day this year was a little different from my normal experience.

Instead of enjoying a romantic night out with my husband, I spent the day marching, shouting and dancing among a crowd of hundreds at a V-Day One Billion Rising for Justice rally through the streets of Bukavu in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

V-Day, founded by playwright and activist Eve Ensler, is a global activist movement to end violence against women and girls. Each year on Valentine’s Day, V-Day events and rallies take place in dozens of cities all over the world – including New York, Rome, Lima, Cape Town, Budapest, San Francisco, London, Kabul and of course, Bukavu.

The UN has called Eastern Congo the “Rape Capital of the World,” and one 2011 study found that 48 women are raped every hour in the Congo. That sobering number doesn’t even include other forms of violence against women such as physical and emotional abuse, child marriage, trafficking and more that affect as many as a third of women worldwide.

Because of our work to end violence through the USAID-funded USHINDI project in Eastern Congo as well as through WeWillSpeakOut.US, I and my colleagues at IMA World Health knew we had to lend our voices to this important rally led by our USHINDI partners at Panzi Foundation and City of Joy.

Though I missed my Valentine thousands of miles away, my experience at V-Day was special in a completely different way. Flags were waving, drums were pounding, and both men and women were rallying together in one voice to end violence against women and girls. Women survivors of rape held hands and danced together for support and healing. Christine Schuler Deschryver, Director of City of Joy, spoke passionately from the steps of the Governor’s office.

As I marched through the streets of Bukavu, arm-in-arm with my IMA colleague Louise Bashige, I thought about the women I’d met earlier in the week during my visits to USHINDI project sites throughout Eastern Congo. Women raped while harvesting in the fields; a woman whose face was badly disfigured from an attack by an M23 soldier; an infant born of rape, unwanted by his mother who cannot afford to care for him, who remembers her attack when she sees his face.

I arrived at V-Day with a heavy heart, full of these women’s faces and stories. But I realized why the City of Joy – a community for women survivors of violence in Bukavu – puts such great emphasis on singing and dancing as a way to heal and find peace. Surrounded by this energy, I too felt empowered and hopeful about a future without violence.

Emily Esworthy is the marketing and communications manager for IMA World Health and the Secretariat for the WeWillSpeakOut.US coalition, a faith-based initiative to end sexual and gender based violence.