Eve Ensler on a Mission to End Sexual Violence
FARAI CHIDEYA, host:
Playwright Eve Ensler has traveled the world, meeting and talking with women who are victims of sexual violence.
Ms. EVE ENSLER (Playwright): It grew out of my play "The Vagina Monologues" because as I toured around the country and the world, so many women would come up to talk to me and tell me their stories. And at first, I thought, great they'll be telling me about their wonderful sex lives. And in the end, 95 percent of the stories were about how women were raped or incested or beaten or mutilated or burned or - and it became so overwhelming I was going to stop doing the play because I felt immoral and that I knew too much and would have to do something with all that information.
And so, in '97, we got a group of amazing women activists together in New York. And we said, you know, how could we use the play to end violence against women - to end it; to stop it. And we came up with this idea called V-Day which was Valentine's Day - Vagina Day. Victory over Violence Day, and we thought we'd do one event in New York and we'd, you know, ask fabulous women to come and perform and we'd raise money for local groups and that would be it.
And that was 10 years ago. And in 10 years, the movement has spread from one theater in New York City to - this year already, there are 1,200 places on the globe signed up to do productions of the play at a specific time during the year to raise money for that particular community to stop violence against women. We're in a hundred and nineteen, you know, countries and we've raised about $50 million to stop violence.
CHIDEYA: Now she's working to stop sexual violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo. As it was in Bosnia and Rwanda, rape is used to demoralize and fracture local populations. Tens of thousands of women are brutally raped in the Congo every year. We should mention that some of the story is quite graphic and may not be suitable for young listeners.
Here's Eve Ensler telling us about her recent trip to the Congo.
Ms. ENSLER: Well, about a year ago, I was invited on behalf of OCHA -(unintelligible) OCHA invited me to do a public interview with Dr. Denis Mugwebe from Bukavu, DRC. To be honest, my life was changed. He was such an incredible human being. And I just returned a few days ago from my next trip, my - to the DRC where we launched the campaign locally. And I'm really amazed to say that there were 8,000 women in the streets of Bukavu standing up to demand an end the sexual atrocities. There were women in Goma, there were women in Bunia, there were women in Brussels, all over Europe. It is really thrilling to see the kind of response that's happened locally and to see women in the Congo really seizing this opportunity to transform their experience and to transform and demand justice. I mean…
CHIDEYA: Eve, let me ask you to tell me a personal story, either one of the women that you've worked with or of your interactions.
Ms. ENSLER: Well, I think I want to tell you the story of a girl I'll call Noella(ph) because her life is still very much in jeopardy. And when she was eight, she was taken - the militias in Hamwe, broke into her house. They took her father in one direction, her mother in another and her in the third. They ended up raping her for two weeks. She didn't even know what a penis was. She didn't even know how to describe it because she was so young. They shoved sticks inside her and guns inside her.
When she was finally returned to her family, her father had been murdered. Her mother had been raped. And she was essentially just leaking urine and feces. And so, of course, the mother understood right away that she had fistula and she had been just ripped apart. When I met her, I just was overwhelmed with her beauty and her intelligence and her desire to be someone significant in this world and what she was dealing with, which was the fact that she was completely incontinent.
This last trip, I spent a lot of time with her and that's one girl out of thousands, one girl out of thousands. And these kind of atrocities, these kind of acts that are going on to women's bodies in the DRC are unacceptable.
CHIDEYA: How have you partnered with UNICEF? What are you doing in that regard?
Ms. ENSLER: What's been really great about this kind of coming together of these two organizations or movements is that UNICEF works in a very different way with very different people than we do. And they have incredible women on the ground in the Congo who are doing fantastic work with a lot of NGOs and a lot of local groups, women's groups. And they were a huge part of this effort that brought all these women's groups into the streets to demand justice.
And one of the things I've seen in this movement for many years is we're all holding a different piece of the story. And if we could find ways to unite our efforts and work under one central campaign while each of us do what we do best, I actually think we could begin to eradicate violence.
CHIDEYA: One of the things that has attracted people to your movement is that it's so audacious. The idea of eliminating violence, not just modifying it, not just diminishing it, but eliminating it. Do you actually believe what you're saying? Do you believe that it's possible?
Ms. ENSLER: Oh, I definitely believe it's possible. I definitely believe it's possible. Look, we're seeing places on the planet, you know, who have been doing V-Day now for eight years, where violence has been reduced, places where it's actually stopped. So if it's in my lifetime, fantastic. If it's, you know, few years after I'm gone, great. But I'm holding this vision that one day women are going to walk safely and freely on this earth and they will be empowered because of it. And I'm not going to be moved from it.
CHIDEYA: When you think about what's ahead, are you looking at working in other African nations? What's coming up for you? What's coming up for the world?
Ms. ENSLER: V-Day is now in 16 African countries. We want to kind of create a safe house movement. We have applications all over Africa, of people who want to build safe houses like the one we built in Kenya, the one we'll be building in Haiti, the one we've built in, you know, Cairo. We have a huge, extraordinary movement in the Middle East which is prospering. I was just there in Jordan. I hope that this work that we create with UNICEF in the Congo is wildly successful.
Between the campaign and the city of joy that we can then begin to see it replicated in the countries, you know, particularly in conflict zones where women are desecrated and eviscerated and, usually, it takes years before people - it's been 10 years in the Congo that women had been going through this. You know, it should have been 10 minutes. It should have been 10 days before there was intervention. And we've got to create the mechanisms, and we've got to create the will. And we've got to make violence against women so awful and extraordinary, so that when anybody hears that it's happening in that moment, they rise up right then to stop it.
CHIDEYA: Eve, when you think about what other people should be doing to partner on this, you found some very powerful partners already. But is there any one or any individual, any organization, any government that you think should step up and do more?
Ms. ENSLER: Well, I think the United States government could have an enormous impact if they were to put pressure on Rwanda to demand that they enter Hamwe where both were brought to justice, were disarmed, and that they were to remove them from the Congo.
I also think that there are so - I mean, the Congo is one of those beautiful places I've ever been in the world. And there are so many natural resources there. It's the richest country in Congo and people are starving to death, you know? There are all these bizarre contradictions where what is in Congo is not available to the people of Congo. And I think that is a crucial piece that has to shift because poverty is so - colonialism, a history of genocide is so deeply related to everything that's going on there, to the violence, to the humiliation, to the shaming of men which then we know always goes to the raping and the destruction of women.
So we all have to see those women as our sisters and we are all their caretakers and we are all responsible for what's going on there due to a legacy of racism and colonialism and imperialism that we're all attached to in some fundamental way.
CHIDEYA: Well, Eve, thanks so much.
Ms. ENSLER: I'm thrilled to be here always with you. Thank you.
CHIDEYA Playwright Eve Ensler is the founder of V-Day.
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