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2008-02-15

On Tenth Anniversary of V-Day, Vagina Monologues Playwright Eve Ensler Focuses on Violence Against Women in New Orleans and Gulf South

Guests

Eve Ensler, Award-winning playwright and creator of The Vagina Monologues, which has been translated into over forty-five languages and is running in theaters all over the world. She is the creator of V-Day, a global movement to stop violence against women and girls.

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Playwright and activist Eve Ensler discusses the ten-year anniversary of the first benefit performance of her award-winning play, The Vagina Monologues, to spread awareness about violence against women and girls. Every year, "V-Day" has focused on women’s struggles from a different part of the world. This year the focus is on the women of the Gulf South, with a major event planned in New Orleans on April 11th and 12th. [includes rush transcript]

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Sexual violence against women and children has reached epidemic proportions in certain parts of Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Kenya, the UN children’s agency, UNICEF, warned on Tuesday. Today is the tenth anniversary of V-Day, a global movement to combat precisely such acts of violence around the world.

Ten years ago, playwright and activist Eve Ensler held the first benefit performance of her award-winning play, The Vagina Monologues, to spread awareness about violence against women and girls. Every year, V-Day has focused on women’s struggles from a different part of the world. This year the focus is on the women of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast.

Jane Fonda, Glenn Close and others performed sections from The Vagina Monologues Thursday night in New York. It’s one of several fundraisers leading up to the "V to the Tenth" celebration in New Orleans on April 11th and 12th.

AMY GOODMAN: We are now joined in the firehouse studio by the woman behind the play and the global movement it inspired: Eve Ensler. Welcome to Democracy Now!

EVE ENSLER: Good morning.

AMY GOODMAN: I’m surprised you’re sitting here after last night. You were standing in a pink evening gown in front of a thousand people on the tenth anniversary of V-Day.

EVE ENSLER: Yeah, I think I’m here. Dream or something.

AMY GOODMAN: You said something interesting last night, Eve, about how perhaps your most radical act in starting The Vagina Monologues, something you thought was so outside the mainstream, became the most mainstream.

EVE ENSLER: Well, I think there’s that great irony, I think, when people tell you not to do things or not to say that something, usually when you say that thing, that’s the thing that changes your life and moves the world in some specific way. And, you know, I had written a lot of plays before The Vagina Monologues that were — well, they were all political plays, but they, on some level, were far less radical. But it was that play, ironically, that was invited into the mainstream, you know, and I think it’s telling, hopefully, to women, particularly, to find the thing they need to say, whatever it is, and to go and say it, because you never know who’s just there waiting for that shift of consciousness.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And your emphasis this year on New Orleans and the women of New Orleans, why precisely did you take that as the focus this year, and what are you planning to do?

EVE ENSLER: Well, we went down to New Orleans right after the flood. We were invited down there by women on the ground who were, you know, at shelters and hotlines, and the whole infrastructure, of course, was gone. So we went to see what we can do, which is what we do. We don’t kind of have an interventionist politics. People invite us, or they do what they do and we support it. And we did this amazing evening of storytelling, and we kind of launched this idea of this Katrina warrior network of women, and about 900 women showed up. And it launched this community and network of women.

And we were down there at the same time trying to determine where our tenth anniversary was going to be, and we thought maybe Nairobi, maybe Paris, and then it was like, no, this needs to be at the Superdome. You know, we need to take back the Superdome. We need to reclaim and turn it into Superlove. And what was fabulous about it is, at the same time, we were launching a spotlight on conflict zones last year, and New Orleans is clearly a conflict zone. It has all the ingredients of a conflict zone, a failed state, you know, the desecration of one section of the population, loss of control in the central government. We can go on and on. And so, we began to look at it like that and began to see the impact of what happens when there is a failed state, when in this country people don’t show up and there’s that kind of profound neglect and abandonment, particularly looking at women, because women have carried New Orleans and the Gulf South since the storm.

And I know you all have spent a lot of time there and covered it in an incredible way since the flood, but, you know, I’m there almost every month in some way, and people don’t know what’s going on there. We don’t — people don’t know that we have tent cities there. People don’t know that the mental health rates and the suicide rates are out of control. People don’t know that people who lived in houses that were once $400 are now $1,200. People don’t know that people are being charged for fuel adjustment, this new term, and they don’t even have a meter, you know, the gas meter in their house. I mean, it’s a bizarre, I think really immoral and profound statement about where the US is.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And, of course, the reports recently of all the formaldehyde problems with the trailers —-

EVE ENSLER: Oh, absolutely.

JUAN GONZALEZ: —- and the poisoning of —-

EVE ENSLER: And the poisoning and everybody becoming sick. You know, there’s a piece I just wrote for Oprah, where I call it “FEMAldehyde,” you know, which is kind of this new creation made by our own, very own failed government. But I think what we’re saying is that we need to bring women from this country and all over the world to show up for our sisters in the South.

AMY GOODMAN: And what is the special burden you feel the women of New Orleans bear?

EVE ENSLER: Well, I think if we can look at all the pieces of it, we kind of look at the whole story of what needs to change for women everywhere. But there’s the burden of racism. There’s the economic inequalities. There’s the burden of a failed education system there, so where are children going to school? And where are they -— it has just been designated the murder capital of America. So we’re talking about one of the highest — the highest violence rate in America. We’re talking about communities where taxi drivers wouldn’t even bring me to go — I don’t have a car — because they were too scared to go into the community, and people are living there.

You know, we’re talking about — I think women particularly are on the frontlines, because they are dealing with children, they’re dealing with husbands who have no work, they are dealing with how to put food on the table, they are dealing with all the kind of nurturing, moving-the-community-forward aspects. And everybody’s traumatized. We’re talking about a seriously traumatized population. So you’ve got trauma.

You know, we did a brunch there recently for the women in the Gulf South, Mississippi, Alabama, grassroots activists, fabulous women who have just been working twenty-four hours a day, and we just gave them a brunch. Women were standing up and weeping, you know, talking about the fact that no one had ever given them a brunch. I thought, a brunch? This is what we’re grateful for? A brunch? And I think, so, part of it is, how do we bring people from all over the US and say we care about the women in New Orleans? We’re going to be giving free massages, free medical exams, free yoga and meditation, all free for the women. And women from all over the country are volunteering. And then we’re going to do a performance of The Vagina Monologues with performers from New Orleans. You know, Charmaine Neville is performing, and there will be gospel choirs. And it’s going to be the biggest mega-event we’ve ever done, at the New Orleans Superdome, at the arena.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain what The Vagina Monologues are, for people who don’t understand. I’m sitting with two of your books. One is The Vagina Monologues, featuring five never-before-published V-Day monologues, and the other, Insecure at Last: A Political Memoir

, that you wrote.

EVE ENSLER: Well, The Vagina Monologues grew out of interviews that I did with about over 200 women, where I took little pieces and strains of their stories and created literary theater text that are really talking about the sexuality of women. The story of women is filtered through their vaginas and the story of their vaginas, and so it ranges from very orgasmic pleasure to, you know, very shattering stories, like that were based on the women in Bosnia who were raped during the war. And I think it goes from celebration to sorrow to happiness to — but looking at how — if we tell our stories through the kind of biography of our vagina, you know. And it was just amazing to me how many women needed to talk about it, and still do, because I’m on a tour right now, you know.

AMY GOODMAN: I visited you at your house and met this remarkable woman, a Congolese human rights activist. Her name was Christine Deschryver. She lives in Bukavu in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo, where the violence against women is among the worst. The next day, she came into our studios at Democracy Now! We just want to play an excerpt of what she had to say.

    CHRISTINE SCHULER DESCHRYVER: There’s another form of very violent war with sexual terrorism going on in Congo. We are talking about more than—in all eastern part of Congo, more than 200,000 women, children and babies being raped every day, and now, right now, while I’m talking to you, thousands of women are taken, and children, into forests as slave sex. And today—

    AMY GOODMAN: As sex slaves.

    CHRISTINE SCHULER DESCHRYVER: As sex slaves, yeah. And we are not—I’m sorry just to talk like this—we are not talking about normal rapes anymore. We are talking about sexual terrorism, because they destroyed, and they—you cannot imagine what’s going on in Congo. Rape is a taboo, I think, in most of African countries, so the women who accept to go to the hospital or to be registered, it’s because they don’t have a choice anymore. They have to go and be repaired, because we are talking about new surgery to repair the women, because they’re completely destroyed. And the ones who are just raped without big destruction, they don’t talk about rape, because the African—the Congolese woman, she suffered so much that she can support being raped without telling it, when she doesn’t need medical care.

    AMY GOODMAN: How can people help here?

    CHRISTINE SCHULER DESCHRYVER: People can help me, first of all, being our ambassador, you know, talking about the problem that’s going on in Congo, because it’s a silent war. It’s like silent. They are killing, they are raping babies and women in Congo. It’s to talk about—you know, it’s like Darfur. Darfur started four years ago. I don’t want to compare, you know, problems we have in this world, but Congo, it started almost eleven years ago, and nobody’s talking about this femicide, this holocaust.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Congolese human rights activist Christine Schuler Deschryver in our studios in September. She lives in Bukavu and works at the Panzi Hospital. Eve Ensler, she’s coming to New Orleans?

EVE ENSLER: She’s coming. We are thrilled. We launched a campaign with Panzi and with UNICEF and with a whole bunch of local groups on the ground in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and we’re bringing her, and we’re bringing Dr. Mukwege, who is one of the most extraordinary men. He is a surgeon and a doctor at Panzi who is sewing up women’s vaginas as fast as the militias are ripping them apart. And they will be in New Orleans, and ironically and beautifully there is a square in New Orleans called Congo Square. We will be launching a parade march with women from the diaspora who will be then demanding the right of return with Dr. Mukwege and bringing New Orleans and Congo together to see how they overlap. And I think that that connection and how all these worlds overlap and integrate is really crucial.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And, of course, this kind of violence is not just a product of — occurring in Africa or some other third world countries. You’re also dealing with the issue of sexual violence within the American military, aren’t you?

EVE ENSLER: Absolutely. I want to say very clearly that the UN says that one out of every three women on the planet will be beaten or raped in her lifetime. It doesn’t matter if you live in a white affluent suburb or a village in Africa, every woman on this planet is being violated.

And right now, we’re doing an event, this V-Day next month in Austin, Texas, where women who were sexually abused in the US military — their rate of abuse is extraordinarily high, and women are just beginning to come forward, risking their lives, risking their tenure, risking everything — they have organized their own V-Day with women who were contractors there who have also been raped. And there’s going to be a huge speaking out of brave women in the military talking about the kind —- can you imagine you’re on the frontlines being raped by your comrades or in your barracks, where after the lights go out people you’re serving with are raping you in the middle of the night? I mean, this is the kind of -—

AMY GOODMAN: One of the stories we heard was that women soldiers stopped drinking water, where it’s extremely hot in Iraq, right, 120 degrees at around 3:00 or 4:00 in the afternoon, because they were afraid if they drank water after that, that they would have to go out to the latrines at night, and they were too terrified to walk out because they were afraid of being raped by their fellow soldiers.

EVE ENSLER: Yeah. Well, I think this is kind of typical of what we’re talking about in the US military, but everywhere. I mean, we’re talking about a state that, as I said last night, is femicide. We are talking about a global pattern, a global system that has got to be identified as a system. It is not accidental, it is not random. It rears its face everywhere in the world. And until we start addressing it in a big story way, like we have begun to do with global warming, we are not going to eradicate violence. And it means looking at the underpinnings.

AMY GOODMAN: If people want to go to New Orleans?

EVE ENSLER: People — I’m inviting Americans, particularly, to get on a bus, get on a train, get on a plane April 11th and 12th. Buy your tickets for the arena event, which you can get at vday.org. Oprah will be there. Amy will be there. Jane Fonda will be there. Jennifer Hudson will be there. Stephen Lewis will be there, Majora Carter, Naomi Klein, Laura Flanders. We’re going to have everyone in the world coming and descending and loving and connecting in New Orleans to bring these issues together and to say the paradigm needs to shift.

AMY GOODMAN: And we will be broadcasting from New Orleans on April 11th. I think that’s the Friday morning leading into this weekend of Superlove, what Eve Ensler is calling the Superdome that weekend. Well, thank you very much, Eve Ensler.

EVE ENSLER: Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: Congratulations on ten years of V-Day.

EVE ENSLER: Thank you. Happy V-Day.

AMY GOODMAN: Eve Ensler, award-winning playwright and founder of The Vagina Monologues and V-Day, she created this global movement to stop violence, to end violence against women and girls.

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