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Columbia woman climbs Mount Kilimanjaro for peace

By climbing Africa's tallest peak, Columbia resident Belinda Bauman hopes — at the very least — to grab people's attention.

Bauman and a team of 14 women will begin the 38,680-step journey up Mount Kilimanjaro, in Tanzania, on March 4, to raise awareness about violence against women in war.

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Bauman, a former teacher, moved to Columbia with her family 18 months ago. Last fall she started the cross country program at Chapelgate Christian Academy, where her two sons attend high school.

The climb is a project of Bauman's nonprofit, One Million Thumbprints, which she founded about a year ago after a decade of devising ways to help women in conflict zones.

Rape and other sexual violence against women is increasingly used as a tactic of war in unstable areas such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, Liberia and South Sudan, according to a 2015 United Nations report. Bauman was first exposed to the issue more than a decade ago, while living with her family in Rwanda, where her husband served as the local director of a faith-based humanitarian organization called World Relief.

"I knew that in Rwanda, the place I was living with my children, that almost a million had died in a hundred days at the hands of their neighbors," she said. "What they never told me was, there were over 500,000 women raped during the genocide. And they survived."

During the Rwandan Genocide, from April 6 to July 16, 1994, approximately 800,000 to 1 million people in the country were killed, and, according to a UN report, between 250,000 and 500,000 women were raped.

Bauman arrived in Rwanda eight years after the genocide, she said, and found that people in the country were still traumatized.

"If you could get a woman to tell you her story, it had to be held very close and it had to be done in a quiet way, in a very private way, and certainly not with a piece of paper and a pen," she said. "It was a gift that she was giving you, because of the trauma."

After two years in Rwanda, Bauman's husband was called back to the United States to take over the vice presidency of programming at World Relief's headquarters in Baltimore. Bauman, a teacher, began working at a private school in Pikesville, and was very happy there, she said.

"But I never let the women that I met kind of rest. They always kind of mulled around in the shadows here," she said, pointing to her head.

Seven years later, on Mother's Day 2012, Bauman's husband brought her a breakfast tray with burned toast prepared by her two adolescent sons, flowers and, she said, an unusual gift.

What Bauman received was an article on the world's worst places to be a mother.

"My husband put it down, kissed me on the forehead and said, 'I just thought you might want to know,'" Bauman said. "And he left me with my coffee and my toast and the article."

The rankings were based on United Nations data about women's health, economic well-being, educational attainment and political participation, as well as children's health.

Bauman was stunned to find that the Democratic Republic of Congo was ranked as the worst country in which to be a mother; she had lived right across the border from the country, while in Rwanda, and had no idea that conditions there were so deplorable for women.

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"It really bothered me that I dearly cared for my Rwandese sisters," she said. "Why didn't I care about the Congo?'

Bauman started researching violence against women in conflict, particularly in the Congo.

"Congo has no infrastructure," she said. "They can barely hold an election let alone track how many women have been raped. What the [UN] had were hands-on reports of outrageous violence against women used as a weapon of war."

Between January and September 2014, the UN Population Fund recorded 11,769 incidents of sexual and gender-based violence in five Congolese provinces; 39 percent of these cases were thought to be directly related to conflict and perpetrated by armed individuals.

According to a 2015 report by the Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict, sexual violence in conflict zones is continuously underreported because of the risks faced by victims and others in coming forward.

At first, Bauman didn't know what to say or what to do about what she discovered. "It just felt like more people should know this, or at least care," she said.

Three months later, Bauman and a group of seven women — writers, bloggers and business owners — traveled to the Congo to interview women who had experienced violence and were being helped through World Relief's programs.

That's where she met Esperance, the inspiration behind One Million Thumbprints.

After fleeing her village to escape oncoming violence, Bauman said, Esperance witnessed the murder of her husband by two men who appeared to be soldiers, who then raped her so brutally that she was unable to move for three days. Local community members and volunteers of World Relief helped her to obtain medical attention and get back on her feet.

Once Bauman had returned to the States, she received Esperance's thumbprint – Esperance does not know how to read or write — as permission for her story to be included in an article that Bauman was writing. Underneath the thumbprint, Esperance had her pastor write, "Tell the world my story."

"She didn't ask for the world to change; she didn't ask for money," Bauman said. "She just wants to know that her story mattered and people would listen to it, and she had enough faith to think that all we had to do was tell the world and the world would care."

Bauman said she consulted with leaders in the UN and Congress who told her that if she could collect one million thumbprints alongside Esperance's, that she would get people's attention. That is how her nonprofit, One Million Thumbprints, began collecting thumbprints, with the goal of ending violence against women in war.

Each time the organization reaches a milestone in thumbprints collected — 1,000, 5,000, 10,000 — Bauman and her team share this support with United Nations leadership and advocate for action. The organization also collects donations to fund peacemaking and development programs run by World Relief that benefit women in South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Syria.

Bauman hopes that the climb up Mount Kilimanjaro will get even more people to care.

"Mountains are high places," Bauman said. "You get people's attention from them."

In addition to completing intense physical training, Bauman and her team collected thumbprints and donations in support of the trip, and invited people to follow their journey on social media.

The team will carry a banner of thumbprints with them to the peak of Mount Kilimanjaro, Bauman said.

"None of us think that the violence will decrease once we climb the mountain," she said. "But our mandate from Esperance is to tell the world her story."

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For more information about the One Million Thumbprints Climb for Peace, go to http://www.onemillionthumbprints.org/climb-1mt/

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