Senior from Congo Establishes Nonprofit to Help Abused Women in Africa

Sarah Thontwa

Sarah Thontwa believes the "little things" can have the greatest impact

CHICAGO, IL (January 14, 2009) – Sometimes it’s the “little things” that have the greatest impact. At least, that’s what Sarah Thontwa hopes.

A senior from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Thontwa recently founded her own nonprofit organization, Little Things, to help abused women from her home country.

What inspired her to get involved in this way?

After returning to her hometown of Gemena and visiting other parts of DR Congo in 2007, Thontwa says, “I was just heartbroken by what I saw.” The central African country, which was devastated by war in 1998, remains one of the poorest countries in the world according to the United Nations. It has also been declared the worst in terms of violence against women.

When Thontwa learned that it costs only $150 per year to send a girl to school, she thought to herself, “I can do that.” Returning to the United States, she immediately went to a crafts store, purchased beads, and began making jewelry to sell. The proceeds go directly to the nonprofit organization and now support two girls. Thontwa hopes to add two more.

Her fellow North Park students became her first customers and encourgaed Thontwa in her efforts. Now those students and others hold parties in which they make jewelry that is sold to raise funds for Little Things.

Thontwa plans to return to Africa after graduation to help provide additional opportunities for Congolese to acquire education, escape abuse, and develop businesses through microenterprise initiatives. She also wants to “break the greatest silence in Congo,” about abuse— especially sexual violence against women. Thontwa remembers one high school friend who was raped as a teenager. “No one wanted to talk about it,” she recalls. “People would say, ‘Don’t talk with her because she was raped.’”

Women, she notes, are often blamed for being raped. Because of the stigma, she explains, “You know to keep your mouth shut because you don’t want to be an outcast.”

A lot of people think the violence is the result of tradition, but Thontwa believes the misinterpretation of Scripture is also responsible. “(Men) will give you quotes from the Bible,” she says—specifically passages highlighting how women were killed for committing adultery. “The church has a lot to learn,” Thontwa adds.

To combat the abuse, she will take home the knowledge she learned while participating in Advocacy for Victims of Abuse (AVA) coordinators training. The Department of Women Ministries of The Evangelical Covenant Church sponsored the training as part of its AVA initiative.

“It helped me understand why it is important for Christians to advocate for others who cannot advocate for themselves,” says Thontwa, whose vision includes educating church leaders to be proactive in stopping the abuse.

Thontwa also is looking at the possibility of opening a shelter for women for whom the ability to have economic independence is vital to improving quality of life. To that end, she wants to start a nonprofit that incorporates microfinance.

She gleaned valuable experience for these aspirations during a recent internship at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. Thontwa worked with donors to the organization, developing communication strategies as well as initiating new relationships between the Council, colleges, and universities. She was the only intern from a non-Ivy League school to participate.

“I expect great things for her,” says Thontwa’s supervisor, John Macha.

Although she could excel at a number of professions in the United States, Thontwa remains focused on her goal. “I want to inspire girls in my country and stand by them as they struggle to find their own voice.”