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V-Day Africa Summit - Shifting Paradigms by Gillian Schutte

V-Day Africa Summit - Shifting Paradigms

Gillian Schutte

Last week, the Skoll Foundation and the Wallace Global Fund, supported the launch of the inaugural V-Day African Summit at Safari Park Hotel, Nairobi.
Activists and social entrepreneurs from across the African continent, including V-Day Kenya director Agnes Pareyio, a former UN Personality of the Year laureate, joined the One Billion Rising Campaign and committed to fight global systemic violence against women and girls. One Billion Rising is a campaign initiated by Tony award winning playwright and women's rights activist, Eve Ensler.

It is a global campaign to stop the violence that is continuously perpetrated against the feminine and will see millions of women, and men who love women, rise up and dance in the face of patriarchal practices that harm and oppress and kill women. This is set to take place on 14th February 2013 0n V-Day.

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It has taken most of us a few days to recover from the first V-Day Africa Summit - not because of arduous deliverances and hard work - but because of the intensity of this gathering of powerful and moving African women activists who are relentless in their calling to change the world for women. The narrative of this gathering is one that is so textured, so woven with complexities of darkness and light, sorrow and joy, pain and play, that it will take many articles to excavate the depth of it. But here is my first offering, my first witnessing of a paradigm shift that happened right before my eyes - in a room full of women who throbbed with the passionate intent to change the world for women. It is told in threads that all weave together into the story of a feminine shift that manifested in Kenya, 29 August 2012, a day that happens to mark my birthday. I have focussed on one facet of the gathering and have left out the work that the remarkable women at the summit are doing - but that is another article.

For me this essay is about words. Words. Words that tumble from women's souls and take flight on the breath that escapes lips that have both grimaced in pain and become loose with laughter. Lips soft with childhood, hardened by experiences.

Experiences that take my breath away.

My throat constricts in spasms. I want to scream. My face is wet with tears that I try to hide, but mascara rings around reddened eyes give me away. This is not my story. This is the story of women who have lived in the war torn regions of Africa. I am from South Africa and this is not my story. These stories originate in the deepest part of Africa where militias roam the countryside in hordes of testosterone and Viagra induced killing packs. This is where vaginas have become the locale of wars over land, over resources, over wealth. These are the stories of vaginas that have born the terrible brunt of a world gone mad. It is not my story and yet it is my story because this is the story of vaginas.

I am in Kenya in all my blondness, my plumpness, my whiteness. I am surrounded by African women; many dressed in African robes and turbans, black skin, light skin, dark skinned, smiling, white teeth. Large women, short women, young women, older women, tall women. Many carry in their bosoms narratives of a pain that is hard to comprehend.

But that comes later.

Most of these women head up organisations in Africa that work towards making their countries a safer place for women and girls. Some of them are actresses who do "The Vagina Monologues" in places such as Namibia, Kenya and even Zambia.

We meet for the first time around sushi tables at a 5 star Safari Hotel in Nairobi. I am late, having fallen asleep on the large dark wood king sized bed. When I finally make it to the dining room I am greeted by a group of women and Eve Ensler. Eve in all her joy and playfulness and energy. She is buzzing around the room, her face alight. She gathers me against her small body and gives me a king size hug - a hug that is more refreshing than two hours in a king size bed. I am introduced to many women and I feel smallish and sleepy in this field of vibrant feminine energy.

I sense that there are great things to come.

The next day the V-Day Africa Summit begins with a moving introduction by Ensler, a women's woman who does extraordinary work with the feminine in this world. Ensler has literally given herself over to the Vagina cause. She is a modern day heroine/saint/avatar, in that she has immersed herself in the calling to heal the feminine and works in this field unstintingly and always with compassion and heart.

To be in the same space with her is an experience in itself because she is intrinsically connected to every beat in the room. Her synapses seem to vibrate at a speed not quite human as she hears, sees, follows, feels and responds to every person in one room, with an elemental intuitiveness that once saw women burnt at the stake.

"We know that violence against women is a worldwide phenomenon - it is not particular to race or ethnic groups or class or culture. Rape culture sadly, seems to be world culture. Patriarchy is a dominant ideology and occupying system with its many manifestations around the world."

"The epidemic of violence against women is entrenched and massive. One in three women will be beaten or raped in her lifetime - that is one billion women on the planet."

"Each continent seems to have its own home-based violence used to control and determine how far women will go, how sexual they will be - how self-realised and authentic and fully empowered they will become." begins Ensler's introduction to this event.

She goes on to talk about the multitude of women's stories shared with her from all over the globe, where, she says, she has lived in the rape mines of the world.

More recently Ensler has developed a close relationship to Africa, which she calls the heart of the world. "I have seen the incredible fierceness, the generosity strength and creative visionary might of the women of Africa. And I have seen the wave of male violence that threatens them daily. I have seen the energy of antagonism and evisceration that they are forced to rise against, as well as keeping their families together, and keeping food on the table. Whether we are in Kenya or Zimbabwe, where rape is prevalent and massive rapes occurred during election violence - or Gambia, Massai land, Somalia, Egypt, Ethiopia where FGM is prevalent or Guinea where women suffered terrible rapes in their political upheaval, or Somalia, Sudan, Sierra Leone, Congo, where thousands upon thousands of women have been raped and systematically violated."

Ensler tells us that in Congo, where she has spent lots of time in the last five years, the rape of women comes close to femicide and that the destruction of the female population is at real risk. She goes on to say that in the Congo rape is used as a tool to secure minerals for corporations throughout the west. "I think this practice of destroying women's bodies is becoming a tool of capitalism that is becoming used throughout the world as a way of securing minerals in other peoples regions that don't belong to them, by raping women and destroying communities and destroying villages - where militias get access to mines and destroy populations. We really need to think about how sexual violence is becoming a tool for corporations and capitalist interest."

In retrospect then, it is not surprising that a remarkable document 'The Vagina Declaration' was birthed after testimony from a young woman who hails from the Congo - where women have been violated in huge numbers and in the vilest manner possible.

This all happened in a remarkable alchemic combustion, after a day of listening to heartrending testimony from women who have either survived rape or worked with rape victims in war saturated regions in Africa. From that point Vaginas become a central discussion point at this Summit. The catalyst for this is largely due to the spontaneous input of Isatou Touray (GAMCOTRAP) from Gambia, who was finally given the title of the Vagina Queen by participants. Touray sings after agonizing testimony from Jane Mukuninwa of the DRC, a young woman who underwent the most horrific months of torture whilst being held as a sex slave by the militia and consistently gang raped to the point where her vagina was destroyed and she was barely alive. It is the type of narrative that creeps into your cells and contorts your throat as you try not to scream and sob out loud when hearing it. It is the narrative you have hoped never to hear; so painful is it to imagine a fellow woman going through this terror. The room is saturated in sorrow and pain and tears stream. It is then that Touray stands up in all her maturity and stature and in a deep voice declares that women are going to reclaim their vaginas and demand a world where vaginas do not ever experience Jane's kind of trauma again. She speaks with anger, with passion, with heart. She kindles a fire in us all and we rise up to the occasion like the warrior women we are meant to be. She declares the Vagina manifesto, which later becomes The Vagina Declaration, after input from all the participants.

Women speak, sing, make up struggle slogans and dance dances about their Vaginas. Women ululate and celebrate their Vaginas. Even the sisters from Sudan and Libya finally utter 'Vagina.' It is a special moment to behold when having witnessed how this word, so reviled in their culture, finally found safe passage from their constricted throats and tumbled joyfully from their laughing mouths.

The spontaneous celebration is also proof to me that African women do indeed own and say Vagina - a word that many have said will not be spoken by Africans. I hear it spoken with joy, with intent, with playfulness and strength.

This is nothing less than a Vagina phenomenon and it happens with such spontaneity that I have to ponder why our psyches felt the urgent collective compulsion to celebrate our Vaginas so vociferously. The answer is clear - for here we are safely gathered in a vagina-friendly space, safely away from a world that has not been Vagina-friendly for a very long time.

It occurs to me that Vaginas have been the locale of war since the inception of patriarchy - a misogynistic trend that saw women's bodies become sites of restraint, control and oppression. In a time before that, vaginas were revered as entities that carried within them secrets and powers and a wisdom that was particular to the feminine. This was a time when men looked to women for answers and bathed themselves in vagina magic. When men and women lived in harmony.

The contemporary Vagina has become a meme of violence, suffering and exploitation rather than joy, pleasure and knowledge. Stories flood the media around issues pertaining to this contested and vilified part of the female anatomy. Many in the West have pointed to African and Islamic men as the only perpetrators of violence against the feminine - but this has never been the entire truth. Colonialism saw the worst form of patriarchy being metered out on the natural inhabitants of colonies - and colonial wives dealt with their fair share of patriarchal brutality too.

One only has to look to the current state of affairs in the USA to understand the nature of repressed patriarchy gone wild. This is manifested in the uber misogynistic war waged on the Vagina which has recently taken on the form of a veritable witch hunt while absurd and backward legislation around the reproductive rights of women take shape. Utterances that can surely only have made sense in the dark ages, plummet from Republican male mouths like female-hating missiles that threaten the outcome of women being jailed for having a miscarriage or abortions after being raped.

We have Vagina-cruel practices such as Vagina bleaching and tightening and hair exfoliation and bejazzling and labioplasty in the West. We have Forced Genital Mutilation (FGM) and sexual oppression in Africa and parts of the East.

And we have rape everywhere.

On the other side we have the Vagina Warriors who fight for the rights of the Vagina to just be free, in all her natural, hair-covered, musky fragrant, quirky, curled, creased, folded, humid, orgasmic, beautiful self. From artist Jamie McCartney's Great Wall of Vagina to Eve Ensler's staging of "The Vagina Monologues" on the stairs of Michigan's Capitol (in front of 5000 people protesting the barring of US Democratic Senator Lisa Brown from the speaking in the Michigan State Courtroom because she used the word 'vagina') - to the Russian anarchist punk protest group, Pussy Riot - to the many ordinary women reclaiming words such as 'cunt' and 'slut' - to famous academics writing their theses on Vagina. These are the brave ones who fight on the side of positive Vagina memes because, it seems, the more the Vagina is being pushed underground the more it takes centre stage. Except that this centre stage is often not the joyous and healthy relationship we Vagina Warriors would aspire to.

It seems, instead, that many women have developed sadomasochistic or painfully tragic relationships with this part of their anatomy as they struggle against patriarchal practices as well as the internalised patriarch who tells them that they have to perform all sorts of vagina-cruel practices to be acceptable to males. As Naomi Wolfe put it in her latest offering VAGINA - "The culture is just not letting women have a positive relationship to their sexuality, to their vaginas."

Which is what was so extraordinary about what took place at the first V-Day Africa Summit in Nairobi, because by the end of the three-day Summit there were 46 African Vaginas ululating in celebration of a joyous female hood reclaimed, assertive and ready to rise. More extraordinary was the fact that many of these vaginas had been through the gamut of terror and rape and mutilation and reconstruction. Many of the women in the room had been recipients of forced genital mutilation and deprived of clitoral orgasm. Some of the women had been subject to incest and rape and domestic violence. But what bound them all was their inner libido, that secret well of joy and determination and compassion that drives them to be activists on a continent that is not kind to feminist activists. These women work tirelessly to make the world safer for other women on the African continent. They are sometimes jailed. They are sometimes ostracised. They are sometimes beaten. But their need to preserve and protect the feminine is a powerful combination of a calling and a choice.

Despite the testimonies of suffering and pain and horror - in these three days there were many collective emotional and joyous orgasmic moments that are now ingrained in our consciousness forever. This, I think, is the secret of the feminine collective - the ability to orgasm in a multitude of ways. Spiritually, intellectually, physically and emotionally. This is why 'the woman' has never been destroyed completely - despite what seems like an ardent and determined attempt to do so by patriarchy.

What becomes very clear from this gathering of women is that rape culture is world culture and that the feminine collective is under siege. "We really need to do something now," says Ensler. "I believe it can only be addressed country by country, continent by continent, village by village, family by family, man by woman by woman by man."

Ensler believes that if the women of Africa are destroyed, life itself is destroyed because Africa is the heart of the world. "If you destroy a woman's Vagina you destroy her self-esteem, her value her confidence, her ability to be tender and open and to trust and receive and love... and her ability to have pleasure. If women are honoured and protected and cherished and healed and lifted - all of life and well-being of life is safe."

The conviction that we all carried with us after this intense three days that left us exhausted for three more days, was that women have the right to know their vaginas, have agency over their vaginas, defend their vaginas and determine who and how anyone enters their vaginas. To this end we will all rise up and stipulate that the demands made in the Vagina Declaration are upheld by the world and women are once again given their rightful space in this world. A space that is safe, that is joyous, that is stable. A space in which women are valued. A space in which women are able to experience their full sexuality holistically - orgasm included.

"I believe this gathering can and will have a huge impact on the future of Africa - and as women are impacted so are men and children, so I believe this gathering will have an impact on all of Africa. Stopping this violence is as crucial as addressing the issues of disease, hunger and climate change," says Ensler who was vibrating with joy and purpose and huge love at the end of a summit that took place in the heart of the world.

Join One Billion Rising. www.onebillionrising.org

Gillian Schutte is an award-winning documentary filmmaker, feminist writer and social justice activist from South Africa. She is a founding member of Media for Justice www.mediaforjustice.net and handheld Films SA. www.handheldfilms.co.za

She is regional co-ordinator for One Billion Rising Southern Africa.