Disclaimer: This article discusses domestic violence and abuse and may be distressing for some readers.
For many the 14th of February - Valentine's Day - brings to mind chocolates, flowers and mushy greetings cards. But another movement is also taking place at this time of year, which aims to highlight the reality of violence and the oppression of women across the world.
Through her desire to reconnect and reclaim her body after physical and sexual trauma, Tony Award-winning playwright, performer, and activist Eve Ensler created a play which struck a chord with women all over the world. Out of the phenomenon of Ensler's 'Vagina Monologues' came the idea of V-Day, taking that reclamation one step further into action and a call for women's rights.
Story of the Vagina Monologues
It was when Ensler was talking to a friend about menopause in the early 90's that she noticed a culture where many women were repulsed at their own bodies and specifically, their vaginas. After asking herself and also her friends what their feelings towards this part of their body was, she was shocked and began taking notes. Covering topics such as relationships, sex, violence and abuse, Ensler created and became part of the episodic play - the 'Vagina Monologues'. First performed in 1996 by Ensler herself in the basement of the Cornelia Street Café in New York’s Greenwich Village, and then off-Broadway, the play gained infamy with the New York Times calling the work "probably the most important piece of political theatre of the last decade."
In the 20 years since it's debut, the Vagina Monologues has now been performed in 48 languages and presented in over 140 countries, with some of the world's greatest actors taking the stage to share the unique views and experiences of women from across the spectrum of class, age, race and gender identity.
What Ensler set out to do in giving voice to an often shunned and taboo subject, grew into a wider movement to break the silence around abuse and help end violence against women. According to UN statistics, 1 in 3 women around the world will experience some form of physical and/or sexual violence, and it's something that Ensler has says we should all be 'hysterical' about. For her, the mission is to try and eradicate these forms of abuse and the ways in which they have become normalised in certain parts of society.
During a recent podcast interview, Ensler recalls her experiences working in homeless shelters and being exposed to women fleeing violent relationships. It was then that she started to notice the intersection of race, class and social status as a breeding ground for violence and degradation of women. Where there was a desperation and imbalance in power structures in communities, the raping of women and the intentional destruction of families through violence and intergenerational trauma was a tool for oppressors.
Why does this matter to Indigenous Australian women?
In Australia, the rates of domestic violence remain high. Last year, the Personal Safety Study (PSS) revealed that 16% (1.6 Million) had experienced violence by a partner since the age of 15. This number has barely changed from the same study a decade ago. What's even more concerning, is that every week two women in Australia are killed as a result of domestic violence.
For Indigenous Australian women, the rates are even higher, ranging between 'between 34-80 times higher than the norm in some areas,' a fact highlighted by academic Marcia Langton.
In 2015, police recorded 12,398 cases of assault where the victim was Indigenous, which Indigenous females were the majority. For Indigenous women, partners were the most common offenders of assault, ranging from 38 per cent of assaults in NSW to 57 per cent in the NT. In 2011–15 there were 200 Indigenous deaths due to homicide. The mortality rate for homicide for Indigenous Australians is around 7 times the rate for non-Indigenous Australians, and the majority (68%) were domestic homicides (partners or other family members). These figures have been reported as a 'national crisis', and there has been a call for more support services and to proactively address the disadvantage that many Indigenous people face.
Family violence is also the primary driver for the high rates of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children into out-of-home care.
Congo's City of Joy and V-Day
These realities became glaringly clear to Ensler particularly after visiting Congo in Africa where the brutality against women was on a level never witnessed before. In response to these horrors, Congo established the first City of Joy, a refuge and learning centre and community run by local women, for local women who have been affected by violence and the common female genital mutilation practice. The women are equipped with information and tools and now return to their communities as leaders and share their knowledge with future generations, breaking the cycle of trauma and victimisation of women.
It's one of the successful movements that has been borne out of the original play and its message that Ensler created. After early performances of the Vagina Monologues, women from the audience would approach the writer/director and reveal their own stories and also what they planned to do help move themselves forward. The idea for V-Day was then established with Ensler realising that women were already taking action in their own way, and what they needed was more resources and support in creating solutions to violence that can only come from the women themselves.
A global activist movement to end the violence against women, the first V-Day event was held on Valentine's Day in 1998, and has since spread to all parts of the world, where community organisations can hold their own creative events, with benefit performances of the The Vagina Monologues and A Memory, A Monologue, A Rant and A Prayer held to raise awareness and funds for anti-violence groups within their own communities.
On the 15th anniversary of the first V-Day event, 1 Billion Rising was launched, a movement for women to dance on Valentine's Day outside of places of justice, court houses, police stations etc to protest the continued oppression and violence against women.
This year, amongst the thousands of different events around the world, several events will be taking place across Australia with multiple events in Sydney and Byron Bay organisers will be once again hosting a flash mob on the beach, inviting participants to wear red and dance to highlight continued violence against women in our communities.
Speaking to The Guardian, Ensler says that although she never planned on being an activist, she is an idealist and will continue to fight for the rights of women, in what she sees is directly tied to the destruction of the earth, our communities and the integrity of our societies.
"So then I began to understand that this worldwide violation of women, this denial of desire or pleasure, this blaming of women for their sexuality when they are abused, is actually universal. When you're fighting female genital mutilation in Gambia, or you're fighting gang rape in Congo, or you're fighting acid burning in Pakistan, you are in your world believing this is happening in your culture, because it's specific to your local reality. But when you suddenly understand that violence against women is the methodology that sustains patriarchy, then you suddenly get that we're in this together. Women across the world are in this together."
For more information on the V-Day Movement and 1 Billion Rising including local events, head to V Day.
If you're seeking support on issues relating to domestic and family violence, contact 1800RESPECT.