V-Day With Justice for Domestic Workers by Monique Wilson
V-Day With Justice for Domestic Workers
by Monique Wilson
Since organizing V-Day events in the Philippines twelve years ago, there have been so many unforgettable moments - moments that have helped changed laws on sex trafficking and domestic violence, such as when we did "The Vagina Monologues" in the Philippine Senate and the Philippine House of Congress in 2002 after Eve Ensler's visit to the country, or when our beloved Filipina comfort woman Lola Narcisa stood onstage in the Armed Forces of the Philippines theatre as she told her story as a World War II sex slave forcibly taken by the Japanese army to an audience of army soldiers and generals who were weeping. Or being at the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal in 2000 performing "My Vagina Was My Village" in front of 200 comfort women from around Asia, and feeling paralyzed and unable to speak as I saw their faces weeping silently at every word - and for myself, as a performer, feeling the gravity and importance of the monologues never before as profoundly than at that moment which has fueled me ever since. Or the time when Edith stood to tell her story of abuse by her husband and his rape of her daughter to a packed stadium of 4,000 people, as her husband stood outside threatening to harm her if she spoke out - as she was bundled into a waiting van to be taken to a safe house - and a year later her emerging as a leader and councilor of a women's NGO who had taken her husband to court, who was now hiding from her. Or when a group of brave college students at the Ateneo University succeeded in overturning the decision of the college to ban the play after staging huge protest rallies and debates, causing a public uproar in Manila reserved only for political scandals.
There are years of memories.....years of milestones. More than a decade of amazing, formidable, fierce women - actresses, directors, writers, politicians, artists, journalists, activists, students - both in the Philippines where I am from, and in London where I reside - coming together to rise up in every event we have ever organized. But nothing quite prepared me for the recent V-Day we staged with members of Justice for Domestic Workers in London. It was deeply moving, hugely powerful, unforgettable.
The members of Justice for Domestic Workers (J4DW) are from the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, India, Thailand, Indonesia, Morocco, Nigeria and Brazil who came to the United Kingdom as domestic workers. J4DW is an organization run for and by domestic workers. They fight for rights and basic legal protection, and provide emergency support and shelter for migrant workers who have escaped abusive situations. They organize classes in empowerment and skills development not just to better equip themselves to continue fighting against the many forms of oppression and exploitation they face, but also to become leaders in their communities and to develop and enhance their talents and potentials. They believe that in order to secure their rights, they must educate and mobilize themselves and build links to those who can support them. Migrant workers all over the world encounter violence not only in their own homes, but also in the workplace. They are at risk due to the nature of the work being inside households rendering them more isolated and the abuses done to them hidden from the outside world. Their V-Day event this year was held to celebrate their third year anniversary as an organization.
We began five weeks before the show with regular full day workshops every Sunday, their day off, where they would gather to partake in theatre games, discussions, storytelling and building their communication skills and confidence. The women would share their heartbreaking stories, but also their stories of empowerment and survival. From not being allowed out of the house by abusive employers, to never being given days off, locked in their rooms, raped and beaten by employers, to stories back home of husbands already having other wives, of their children not knowing them anymore from the long distances and time spent in other countries where they raise other people's children, to their experiences of taking their children away from their abusive husbands, leaving them with friends as they travel away from home in search of jobs, to finding a community of other women in their host countries where they began to learn about their rights. Then these discussions became sessions on how they could envision a world without violence, where the women shared the most incredible, moving, visionary ideas.
For most, if not, all of them, English is not their first language. For some, they have only begun learning how to read and write, as harsh economic conditions and poverty in their home countries have not enabled them to go to school. The sessions also focused on developing skills through theatre - confidence, articulation and communication. Then as a group we explored each monologue, what those particular experiences meant to them and how they connected to it, particularly "Over It" - where the women chose lines they connected deeply too. These sessions lasted hours. They would cry, rant and demand. And always all throughout the workshops and rehearsals they all brought the most amazing food. And there was always laughter as well, and dancing and lots of singing.
After weeks of hard work, going through personal struggles just to be able to read and perform the monologues in another language to their own, to saying the word vagina when weeks before they would either scream in laughter or embarrassment or shrink away from fear, or from the women from the Muslim communities being unsure about performing the play - to then suddenly being onstage, speaking perfect English with a confidence and grace you don't even often find in actors, to owning the stories they were reading, to being so fully in their power as they demanded an end to violence - the V-Day with the J4DW women was, in my heart and memory, one of the most moving, and one of the most powerful V-Day's I have experienced. The women really owned the stories, stood there with pride and power. They worked unbelievably hard. They had so much devotion and commitment.
The audience, made up of fellow domestic workers from around Asia, Africa and the Middle East, some of their employers, friends and supporters were hesitant to react at first. For most of them I think it was the first time they heard vagina being spoken out loud. But the performers led them, inspired them and brought them along the very same transformative journey they had been on in the last 5 weeks, until the audiences were laughing and weeping along with them - all promising to join 1 billion rising at the end. The women come from very conservative cultures, communities and backgrounds - the sheer courage it took to stand in front of members of their communities, some of whom had shared reservations earlier, really took my breath away. Many of the J4DW women who had attended the workshops weeks before and who were unsure about doing the show, were now telling me they will definitely be up on that stage next year with their friends. In fact, right before the show, there were some members, who had never rehearsed, who just wanted to sit on the stage and be with the women performing. And just as moving to see were the vast community of other domestic workers watching their friends, with so much love and support, who had all also come dressed in red.
The women were incredible, gorgeous and blooming. From not being able to speak English with confidence or read five weeks before, to then doing the monologues - the depth, the connection, the humor was overwhelming. It was so life changing for them - as it was for us who witnessed their beautiful transformations. It was so moving to see audiences and performers alike- embracing deeply after the show, crying and laughing - as they all couldn't stop dancing.
After the show they drew up a list of demands from the UK government. Their main demand is for the UK government to not remove their current right to change employer. On February 29, 2012, the Home Secretary Theresa May announced changes to the rules for migrant domestic workers, including the removal of this right.
Marissa Begonia, head of J4DW says: " the removal of the legal right to leave an abusive employer will illegalize many women who enter as domestic workers accompanying wealthy employers. Some of them will feel unable to leave abusive situations thereby risking their physical, mental and emotional security. Other will escape, and thereby become undocumented with no access to legal employment or basic legal protection. We will continue to campaign for the restoration of the right to change employer and for domestic workers' rights to settlement until these are reinstated. The right to change employer is very important to us....it saves lives, specially for those domestic workers who are being sexually abused, who have beaten, who have been asked to work for 24 hours....That is not work, that is slavery".
Their message to Eve and to V-Day:
"Thank you Eve, for your talent and heart. This experience has helped us
realize that, being exploited, we have the power and chance to recover, and to
help prepare a better and safer world for women and girls. Thank you to V-Day for helping us bring justice to the once shattered lives of the most vulnerable workers and allowing us to explore and voice out our anger and pain, and for helping us help others who have suffered humiliation and abuse. Thank you Eve for making this women power universal, and for including us".