Eve Ensler and Katrina Warriors march in New Orlea

(WOMENSENEWS)–V-Day, the global organization that fights violence against women and girls, has raised $50 million since 1998 for more than 5,000 local anti-violence groups and safe houses in South Dakota, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Haiti, Kenya, Egypt and Iraq.

For its 10th anniversary this year, V-Day is bringing its fundraising focus to the New Orleans Arena and Louisiana Superdome, where 24,000 evacuees–the sick, disabled and poor among them–were penned in after Hurricane Katrina for five days in 2005, an event that horrified a nation watching the crisis unfold on TV.

Since then attention has drifted, Eve Ensler, the activist playwright who founded the group, told Women’s eNews in a recent interview. "New Orleans is pretty much forgotten now by the media. There is a level of misery and abandonment that is immoral for an American city," she said of a city once called the Big Easy, but now still missing half its former population. "The 10th anniversary is to bring support and to be reminded of what happened and is still happening there."

Ensler said V-Day chose New Orleans not only to highlight the ecological ruins–mainly wetland depletion–left by Hurricane Katrina, but to honor the Gulf Coast women working to support the region’s women and girls. V-Day calls them "Katrina Warriors."

The V to the Tenth celebration on April 11 and 12 includes free entry to "Superlove" at the Superdome, featuring slam poets, singers, performers and art exhibits. Medical testing, yoga, massage and makeovers will also be offered free of charge to women from the Gulf region.

Some of the money raised from ticket sales of V to the Tenth will stay in New Orleans to help such organizations as Coastal Women for Change in Biloxi, Miss., a nonprofit community action group organized by Sharon Hanshaw, a Women’s eNews 21 Leader for the 21st Century 2008. Hanshaw’s group is focused on revitalizing neighborhoods through public awareness campaigns about child care needs and elderly abuse in evacuation trailers.

V-Day is also working with Colette Pichon-Battle of the Coastal Women Coming Home Project, which works to relocate low-income women and women of color back to the Gulf Coast, to bring 1,200 women who fled New Orleans back to attend weekend events.

The celebrity lineup for Saturday evening at the New Orleans Arena includes actors Salma Hayek, Jane Fonda, Jennifer Beals, Ali Larter, Calpernia Addams, Rosario Dawson, Kerry Washington, Didi Conn and Christine Lahti in a performance of "The Vagina Monologues."

Transformative Creativity

"Transforming the dome from a horrific into a ‘her-rific’ thing is a wonderful and creative way to use the power of one," said Carole Bebelle, founder of the Ashe Cultural Arts Center in New Orleans, a nonprofit that promotes Caribbean and African American art and artists.

Bebelle is the force behind "Swimming Upstream," a play she encouraged women in the region to write about their Katrina experiences, which debuts this weekend.

With the presidential race in the news, Ensler expressed her disappointment. "I am waiting for one candidate to bring the issue of violence against women front and center."

By contrast she pointed to all that her 1996 play "The Vagina Monologues" has achieved as it has been performed and adapted around the world in hundreds of thousands of V-Day benefit performances.

"It’s really a play that did everything," Ensler said. "Art is at the core. It reaches people in a different way than politics can."

Ensler wrote a new monologue about the women of New Orleans and the Gulf region for talk show host Oprah Winfrey to perform. Music, parades, workshops and education programs will run throughout the weekend for expected crowds of 20,000 to 30,000.

Reaching People Through Art

"The Vagina Monologues," a bawdy, disturbing and heart-rending treatment of gender and female sexuality, broke the taboo against saying "vagina" when it was first performed in a small downtown theater in New York.

"When I first started doing this," Ensler said, "you couldn’t say the word ‘vagina’ on television."

Liberating the word from the doctor’s office–the only place it was acceptably spoken–into the mainstream was central to Ensler’s effort to free girls and women in other ways, such as talking about the forms of abuse they suffered in silence.

Ensler said that in post-performance gatherings audiences would regale her with tales of sexual abuse and rape. That sparked the formation of V-Day.

Because the play spoke to so many women, V-Day allows groups to perform it royalty-free to raise money for local service providers, often rape crisis centers and women’s shelters.

In 2007, more than 3,000 V-Day events took place around the world. The group has also executed extensive media and educational campaigns. In 2008, more than 3,700 V-Day events will be held.

Three Vs to Celebrate

To commemorate the first-ever fundraiser in 1998–the "V" in V-Day stands for vagina, victory and Valentine–the group held another this year in New York that raised $600,000. In February Ensler also toured college campuses around the country.

One of V-Day’s better-known beneficiaries is Agnes Pareyio, who walked from village to village in Kenya on a personal mission to prevent female genital mutilation, still illegally practiced there.

Ensler met her in Kenya and, inspired by her perseverance, asked how she could help. Pareyio said she could use a Jeep to reach more women more quickly.

V-day not only gave her a Jeep, it gave her the means to found a safe house where girls fleeing genital mutilation could seek protection.

"V-day has empowered me personally to go further into understanding my rights and the rights of my community," Pareyio told Women’s eNews from Kenya. In 2005, she was named the United Nations’ Kenya person of the year.

Among the group’s more substantial achievements was V-Day 2005, when it launched its Karama program, which offers a sustained focus on battling violence against women in the Middle East and North Africa through an office in Cairo.

V-Day also continues to stir up opposition and embarrassment.

In February, Jane Fonda said the word "cunt" in an appearance on NBC’s morning talk show, "Today," to promote V-Day’s anniversary.

Despite saying "vagina" repeatedly throughout the segment, Fonda’s use of the word "cunt", the name of the piece she has performed, caused an uproar among audience members. Host Meredith Vieira had to issue an on-air apology.

While "cunt" may be out of the question, Ensler said the word "vagina" has become so commonplace it will be echoed throughout the Superdome.

V-Day’s next spotlight campaign will be in the Democratic Republic of Congo, a place Ensler describes as the most ghastly example of women being raped as a tactic of war.

In all the places V-Day spotlights, the funding process is driven by the wishes of beneficiaries, who are mainly grassroots activists. "It is not somebody from the outside coming in and saying let me invade and dominate you," Ensler said. "We sit and we listen."

Jeanine Plant is a writer who lives in Brooklyn.

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For more information:

V to the Tenth:

Catholic Campuses Hush Vagina Monologues:

Vagina Monologues Stirs Up Cairo:

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