For 16 years I have spent most of my time thinking about violence against women and girls. I have traveled to over 70 countries and listened to the stories of women in wartime and in their everyday lives. I have sat in the dark in Jalalabad, Afghanistan, while women showed me, by flashlight, lashes on their ankles from the Taliban. I have sat in a homeless shelter in New York City where a young woman showed me cigarette burns on her body after being held captive by a man for two years in a subway cave, in a restaurant in Pakistan with a woman whose face had been melted off by acid, and in an upscale cafe in Manhattan where a young woman told of being drugged and raped by her best friend while at an Ivy League college. I have spent seven years in the Congo listening to story after story of the most grotesque and inhumane violations rendered on women’s bodies during a war over minerals.
Violence against women is an epidemic. It may manifest itself differently from culture to culture: female genital mutilation in one place, Internet bullying in another, gang rape here and acid burning there; however, I believe it is the mother issue of our time. If anything else in the world caused suffering for over 1 billion people, (the UN and the WHO estimate that one out of three women in the world are raped and/or beaten at some point in their lives) the world’s energies, resources and attention would be focused on it. However, because it is violence against women and girls, a huge part of our fight is overcoming what has become entrenched, expected and normalized.
We founded V-Day, a global movement to stop such violence, 16 years ago, and we have had many victories. However, we have still not ended the violence.
On Feb. 14 this year, millions of people rose up in 207 countries and danced for our campaign, One Billion Rising (OBR). It turns out that dancing, as the women of Congo taught me, is a formidable, liberating and transformative energy. We have heard from women in many countries that OBR allowed for the public promotion of women’s rights where it was unthinkable before. In Mogadishu, Somalia, humanitarian Fartuun Adan said the awareness raised by the campaign has focused on the number of women and journalists jailed for daring to report rapes to authorities. In Britain, Labour and Cooperative MP Stella Creasy said OBR has “helped us to put tackling violence against women on the British political agenda.” In the US, campaigner Pat Reuss credits the campaign with support for and passage of the Violence against Women Reauthorization Act of 2013, which expanded protections for victims of domestic abuse and sexual assault.
“OBR wasn’t just a 24-hour period where busy people stopped for a few minutes to rise and dance,” she said.
In Guatemala, Marsha Lopez, who has been part of the V-Day movement since 2001, said the most important result of OBR was the creation of a law for the criminalization of perpetrators who impregnate girls under 14 years old. The law also includes penalties for forced marriage of girls under 18.
This year, we are escalating and deepening the campaign with One Billion Rising for Justice. Justice is about restoring the primacy of connection so that we understand that violence against women is not a personal problem, but is connected to other systemic injustices whether they be patriarchal, economic, racial, gender or environmental.
Our work this year is to weave this bigger story together. On Jan. 8 next year, many cities, including New York, Santa Fe, Miami, Mumbai, Manila and London, are organizing forums called “The State of Female Justice,” where leaders of activist groups, lawyers, thinkers and survivors are talking about a more inclusive, multilayered story. Many questions have arisen: How do we create justice when the state is paralyzed or against us? What does justice look like? How do we address root causes of violence? How do we join our struggles? And how do we distinguish between justice and revenge?
Justice is resonant across all kinds of boundaries because the refusal to hold perpetrators of violence accountable is a global plague often an equal, or sometimes worse, trauma than the original act of violence. Many places are planning events where women will come forward to tell their stories of injustice. Women in India are planning to have tribunals outside courthouses, breaking the silence and demanding accountability. In Britain, there is a rising planned outside Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre, where women are held for months instead of receiving asylum and care after fleeing countries where they were raped, tortured and threatened. All the member groups of International Women’s Alliance around the global south will be rising, not just against corporations, but against the whole system that keeps women poor. Syrian women are rising from the front lines of war. Many incarcerated and formerly incarcerated women are rising against the continued imprisonment of so many black and brown people. They are rising because the majority of women in prison are there with histories of being victimized by violence that directly or indirectly led to their incarceration. Indigenous and Aboriginal women are rising throughout the world to reverse laws that allow corporations to steal, develop and pollute their land, and because the rate of violence against them is often three to 10 times higher than the non-indigenous population. There are thousands of men rising to reconceive of notions of masculinity and manhood. College students are participating in Campus Rising, demanding safety and accountability on college campuses, where in one year over 300,000 women are sexually assaulted in the US alone.
This is just a taste of the thousands of actions being planned for Feb. 14. We will be rising outside courtrooms, corporate headquarters, churches, workplaces and mining sites. This year, we will go further, releasing, dancing and putting our bodies on the line with specific demands and visions that through our numbers, solidarity and energy cannot be denied. Come rise with us.
Eve Ensler is an American playwright, performer, feminist and activist, best known for her play The Vagina Monologues.