Six weeks ago, Monona’s David Lippiatt was nearing the top of Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, Africa. He was leading a group of 11 men on a mission to raise funds to support programs for women and children around the world who are affected by gender violence.
“One of the greatest injustices of our time is that more is not being done by men to address sexual-based violence against women,” said Lippiatt, president of Madison-based WE International.
Congo, adjacent to Tanzania, is one of the worst places in the world to be a woman, Lippiatt said.
“Rape is considered a weapon of war in many areas. In fact, we heard things from rebel soldiers that rape is cheaper than a bullet,” he said. “If they feel they can break the heart of the community, which is often the women, by impregnating them, giving them AIDS, shame and humiliation, they have won.”
Domestic violence, rape, bride burning and acid attacks are common.
Before the climb
The idea for the climb in early March began a few years ago when Lippiatt was leading a group of 14 women to the top of the mountain on another fundraising mission.
In conjunction with the nongovernmental organization World Relief, he and the women climbed to raise awareness of gender-based violence and for programs for women who have experienced it. They flew into Rwanda and then drove into Congo.
“While we were in Congo, we sat and listened to women tell their stories of atrocities,” Lippiatt said. “But the whole time I was doing it, I thought this would really be powerful with a group of men.”
Stories of women who have suffered such violence are documented in Nicholas Kristof’s book “Half the Sky: From Oppression to Opportunity for Women Worldwide,” which Lippiatt told all the men to read before the climb.
“It was life-changing for these guys,” he said. “Some of them embraced it more than others. For some, it became very personal.”
The climb itself took a little more than week from the beginning elevation to the summit.
“The climb was also for the guys,” Lippiatt said. “It’s a cool bucket list experience. You climb the tallest freestanding mountain in the world. You stood on top of Africa. … It’s the hardest thing they’ve ever done. … They walked away transformed.”
The purpose of
Lippiatt and his wife, Tina, founded WE International in 2007 to create effective and sustainable solutions for people affected by poverty and injustice in developing countries around the world.
“We’re about living better stories, encouraging them to live better stories, and ultimately, we’re about helping others live better stories in developing countries,” Lippiatt said.
He said everyone in the world wants the same things – food, water, shelter, safety, a better life for their children – but those in developing countries have to go through so much more to get what others take for granted.
“We live in such a greenhouse bubble,” Lippiatt said. “There’s a real world out there hurting. I always feel like there’s a moral imperative to respond to a lot of the things that we see going on in the world.
“The world outside the greenhouse is starving. Their lives are so radically different.”
The beneficiaries of the climb are women and girls who have experienced gender-based violence. Currently WE International is funding a fistula hospital in Goma, Congo.
An obstetric fistula of the kind that occurs in many developing countries is a hole between a woman’s vagina and one or more of her internal organs. This hole results in permanent incontinence of urine or feces. Most women who develop fistulas are abandoned by their husbands and ostracized by their communities because of their foul smell.
Traumatic fistula is the result of sexual violence. The injury can occur through rape or women being butchered from the inside with bayonets, wood or even rifles.
“They become marginalized,” Lippiatt said of the victims. “They’re not bride-worthy. They’re not productive. They leak. They smell. There’s shame from what has happened. There’s trauma from what they faced.”
Money raised from the climb will also be used to offer restorative counseling for the women and girls who are victims of gender violence; trauma counseling camps in Lebanon that provide a space for Syrian refugees to find healing, hope and restoration from violence; and Home of Restoration in Uganda, one of WE International’s partners to provide restorative care, and entrepreneurial training services for women and children who have been victims of human trafficking in places like the Philippines and Uganda.
Lippiatt said the climb raised about $25,000, but he would like to raise another $25,000.
He said that too often, people are like a deer caught in the headlights – staring at a tragedy but not knowing how to respond or feeling like one single action won’t make a difference. Lippiatt insists one person can make a difference.
“There’s so much need,” he said. “I can’t help everybody, but I can help somebody.”
It might seem like a tough mountain to climb, but Lippiatt’s proven he can do it.