By Chris Lombardi
Thursday, February 14, 2002
Those viewing tonight's HBO premiere of Eve Ensler's "The Vagina Monologues" are part of a global event to fund shelters, anti-rape campaigns and women's centers, including a communications center for the new Ministry of Women's Affairs in Afghanistan.
(WOMENSENEWS)--Agnes Pareyio has been traveling around Kenya for years with a vagina in her hand.
The vagina in question, made of wood, can be separated into its component parts, and Pareyio uses it to demonstrate the effects of female genital mutilation, commonly known as "female circumcision." Until recently, she traveled from village to village on foot, and it took her a year just to traverse the territory west of the Kenyan capital of Nairobi. This year, for the first time, Pareyio has a sport-utility vehicle, allowing her to cover in three months what once took her a year. She's also opening a safe-house to shelter the girls fleeing families who insist they go through with the perilous ritual.
Meanwhile, in China and Malaysia, a pair of brave young women await word from government censors about March performances of "The Vagina Monologues," a series of sketches that, with their frank portrayals of women's feelings about their vaginas, has become a key source of funding for violence-prevention programs around the world. If approved, the Beijing performance would benefit the country's Domestic Violence Network and Red Maple Counseling Center, both new organizations in a country where abuse of women is rarely confronted or discussed.
And in the far Northern California town of Ukiah, a rural community known best for its confrontations between logging communities and environmentalists, residents are consumed by "vagina fever," an exhibition of vagina-themed quilts overtaking the town square and a local domestic violence network set to benefit from it all.
Tonight, the HBO premiere of "The Vagina Monologues" continues a month of performances around the world organized by V-Day, an organization born of the enormous response to the play of the same name, originally written and performed by Eve Ensler. Last year, most of V-Day's attention focused on a star-studded extravaganza at Madison Square Garden in New York; this year, 800 events from Zaire to Antarctica will run from Jan. 23 to March 8. On that last day, International Women's Day, "Monologues" playwright Ensler will arrive in Kabul, Afghanistan--not undercover as she did in 1999, when she was researching the plight of Afghan women but as a public figure presenting a satellite-phone system to the new Afghan Ministry for Women's Affairs.
In this way, V-Day 's fusion of art and politics performs an end run around squabbling legislators and United Nations consensus processes by directing energy, attention and resources to strategies for women's survival.
Last year, the network of V-Day performances raised about $3,500,000, according to Cecile Lipworth, managing director of V-Day's worldwide campaign; this year, with 91,000 theater seats, V-Day is set to pull in $6.5 million. All that in addition to corporate sponsors such as Lifetime Television, Fairmont Hotels and Resorts, and Tampax, funding the organizing work that in turn has energized 800 communities to pick up the ball to raise funds for local groups fighting violence.
V-Day grew out of Ensler's passionate response to the revelations about Bosnian "rape camps," in which women were held and systematically raped by Serbian soldiers in the early 1990s. Rada Boric, director of the Center for Women War Victims in Zagreb, Croatia, and now "almost a sister" to Ensler, remembers that the playwright, on assignment in a refugee camp for The New York Times, ended up staying for weeks, "making coffee and crying." The result was the play "Necessary Targets," which was staged in 1995 as a benefit performance at the Kennedy Center in Washington, with former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright "sobbing in the front aisle," says Boric. At that moment, the show's producer, Willa Shalit, realized that Ensler was the partner she had been looking for to link art and social change. "Monologues," which Ensler wrote next, featured "My Vagina was My Village" from the heartbreaking testimony of one of Boric's clients.
Everywhere Ensler performed "Monologues," women approached her with their own stories of abuse. Finally, in 1997, she declared that she would have to stop performing it "if we didn't do something to end violence against women and girls, like I knew too much and couldn't keep going. And that's why we started V-Day."
During the first year of V-Day events in 1998, 65 colleges in the United States and Canada staged "Monologues"; this year, 543 colleges and universities around the world will mount productions of the play, raising funds to support existing programs, like women's centers and shelters, and for new, creative initiatives, such as the $500 Howard University raised to buy new underwear for women seeking help at its rape crisis center.
On the international level, many organizers are contending with a host of concerns in addition to the near-universal reality of rape and battering. In Manila, the Philippines, where powerhouse organizer and actor Monique Wilson obtained government permission by doing a performance of "Monologues" for the officials in charge, the proceeds from the 8,000-seat performance will go primarily to efforts to combat sex trafficking; an estimated 700,000 women are trafficked via the Philippines annually, according to Worldwide Campaign managing director Lipworth. In South Africa, government resistance was trumped by the first well-publicized incident of "baby rape" in 2001, in which HIV-positive men raped girls younger than 10 on the assumption that the girls were free of the virus and would therefore cure them. "The whole country woke up," says Lipworth, herself a South African national. "They said 'Oh my God, we have to do something.'"
All participants in V-Day must agree to either start or fund local efforts. If they're looking for a new project to fund, they needn't look much further than V-Day's "Stop Rape" contest, now in its second year. Last year, winners included a Brazilian street-theatre troupe focusing on domestic violence and a German group's proposal for baked goods with anti-rape slogans.
"What's kind of heartening is how many of the ideas overlap," says Karen Obel, director of the College Campaign, which held its own, separate contest this year. Among the winners in this year's contest are the Pink Coats, a highly visible, all-women bodyguard service to accompany women crossing Western Washington University's campus. The winners of the international contest will be announced on Saturday at V-Day's gala fund-raising performance in New York, which will feature a star-studded cast that includes the actors Jane Fonda and Rosie Perez.
On her way to Afghanistan, Ensler will stop in New York for the re-opening of "Necessary Targets." Last December, reflecting Ensler's longtime commitment to the plight of women under the Taliban and beyond, a run of "Targets" at the Hartford Stage in Connecticut hosted a group of Afghan women who had just met one another in Brussels, a meeting coordinated by V-Day with Equality Now, an international organization advocating for women's rights.
Long before the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, Ensler was reporting in Afghanistan under cover of a burqa, returning "with articles no one would publish. Nobody cared." One monologue, "Under the Burqa," was performed by Oprah Winfrey at last year's event, highlighting the brutalization and starvation of women conducted as a matter of Taliban policy. Then the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center focused attention on Afghanistan for the first time in years.
The terrorism on Sept. 11, Ensler and Shalit say, was a window exposing the dangers of violent oppression of women. "We're in a very dangerous shape as a human species," Ensler says. On Sept. 11, she says, "the window opened for a moment and we all saw it together." In that moment, Ensler and Shalit say, the White House and Congress were talking about--and listening to--Afghan women. Now, the infrastructure Ensler is helping build can assist women in keeping and gaining the public's attention.
For example, Ensler's upcoming trip to Afghanistan will provide some of the infrastructure for Dr. Sima Samar, Deputy Prime Minister and head of the newly created Ministry for Women's Affairs, that international aid hasn't provided. "We're bringing in four satellite phones. With cellular re-chargers, because electricity is so unreliable there," Shalit says.
At the end of V-Day celebrations, the phones will be there. So will the Kenyan safe-house for women fleeing genital mutilation; safe-houses for trafficked women in Sri Lanka and Zagreb; and the first-ever battered-women's shelter on Lakota land near Rapid City, S.D., where U.S. law enforcement cannot provide protection to survivors of domestic violence. All this in addition to a million conversations, a thousand vagina quilts, hundreds of rape crisis centers that can continue operating with the funds raised by V-Day.
Meanwhile, Shalit and Ensler are looking toward the next revolution to start with the re-opening of "Necessary Targets," which Shalit hopes will have an impact on the current war fever in the United States.
"Everyone's talking war, war, war," she says, "but where are the women?"
Chris Lombardi is a freelance writer in New York. She coordinated Women's Enews' Fall 2000 election coverage and helped cover the Beijing + 5 conference on women. Her work has been published in Ms. Magazine, the Progressive and Inside MS.