Originally published in June 2008.
It was no accident that New Orleans was the site of the 10th anniversary of V-Day, a dizzying two-day celebration in April of the global movement to end violence against women and girls. The vibrant, pulsating city, though far from healed in the two and a half years since the levees broke, flooding the city in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, offered safe harbor for the slam poets, artists, writers, healers, hell raisers, and hope mongers—activists all in the struggle for truth, justice, and a new American way. I was part of the tribe that converged on the Big Easy, in my case to also speak at Tulane University and to visit one of my daughters.
While it was a far cry from Mardi Gras, colorful costumes, laugh-outloud T-shirts (“Viva las Vulvas” read one), Native American dancers, and the Mahalia Jackson Choir made for a celebratory mood. We needed all that upbeat energy as a counterweight to the grim stories of violence against women recounted from the main stage. It was both chilling and hopeful that V-Day was held in the Superdome where so many suffered, primarily New Orleanians of color who had no way to get out of the city after the storm. Transforming the space from a suffocating container of despair to a vessel of great hope was accomplished by imaginative art—installations suggesting vaginal canals and portraits of “sheroes” of the women’s and civil rights movements. Upper floors had places for women to go for free health care, a hair salon, and yoga instruction. An “activists’ lounge,” open to women and men, was filled with literature, art, books, and animated conversations.
An imaginative, urgent effort to raise consciousness and money, V-Day grew out of playwright-activist Eve Ensler’s wedding of art and activism. Her award-winning play, The Vagina Monologues, is expected by the end of 2008 to have been performed at more than 3700 V-Day events around the United States and the world. A star-studded performance of the play, featuring Jane Fonda, Julia Stiles, Salma Hayek, and Jennifer Beals, capped off the two-day gathering and included music by Jennifer Hudson, Faith Hill, and the New Orleans Gospel Choir.
Among the conversations Eve Ensler facilitated from the stage was one with women activists from conflict zones—Iraq, Bosnia, Afghanistan, the Philippines, and the Congo. The struggle for women’s lives in these war-torn countries was as heartbreaking to hear as it was inspiring to learn of women’s vision and small victories.
At V-Day, men were also visible, albeit a minority of all who attended. Some were activists working to prevent violence against women; others were eager to learn what they could do. A men’s panel featuring local and national figures in the antiviolence men’s movement held the attention of the audience with a sophisticated discussion of men’s roles in perpetuating and preventing violence.
As more men—from high school to middle age—are encouraged to examine (and break out of) the box of conventional masculinity men have been socialized to inhabit, a burning question looms large: How can we inspire more men to acknowledge that some men’s violence requires all men to reject any kind of abuse of women? There is no middle way. To paraphrase the current tenant of the White House, “Either you’re for the abusers or you’re against them.” We have to continue to challenge ourselves to find our voices and to shift our position from the “I’m-a-good-guy-I-don’t-abuse-women” bystander to someone who won’t tolerate men who act abusively. Men’s participation in inspirational gatherings such as V-Day is a part of the strategy.
Perhaps the most compelling expression of the possibility for men in the movement to end violence against women was the conversation Eve Ensler conducted with Dr. Denis Mukwege, director and founder of the Panzi General Referral Hospital in Bukavu, in South Kivu in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The lone physician at Panzi Hospital, Dr. Mukwege said the hospital is the only center for victims of sexual violence in eastern Congo. The level of violence against women there is unthinkable: vaginas violated with bayonets, bottles, sticks. “This is not rape,” Dr. Mukwege said, “this is a decimation, destruction, the destruction of life force, of life.” At Panzi Hospital, he repairs and reconstructs that which has been destroyed.
After 10 years of the world knowing about these unprecedented assaults, why has there has been no real progress? Ensler asked Dr. Mukwege. “The world needs to be altered,” he said. “The world comes, sees, is moved and then forgets.” He said V-Day inspired him with the spirit of healing and hope it engendered. “I see the image of a snowball gaining momentum, of change coming.” To the question, “What about you, as a man, keeps you in the Congo, keeps you giving your life to women?” he answered: “We live with women. We understand the strength of women. Women’s work—unlike men’s—extends throughout the day. When you’ve been raped, when you are without your strength, it is necessary to help women regain their strength, to work beside women.” Dr. Mukwege is currently overseeing construction of the City of Joy, a refuge for healed women, survivors of torture and rape who have no family and no community.
Throughout the gathering, Dr. Mukwege’s words came back to me, like a call and response one might hear out on the bayou. “Every day… every day… Say no to violence, say no to rape… Say no to violence, say no to rape… In each community… In each community… Each individual should say No! Should stand up and say No!… Each individual should say No! Should stand up and say No! … If everyone would do that, things will change… If everyone would do that, things will change…”
V-Day’s 10th anniversary brought together women and men of conscience from around the United States and around the world. By being held in New Orleans, symbol of struggle and possibility for a renewed America, the gathering radiated a moral urgency. Creating a world safe for women and girls means creating a world safe for boys and men. Women have long been doing their part; as men we must redouble our efforts to do ours.