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Once More With Feeling, Eve Ensler’s In India To Harness Woman Power (Jagori)


Originally published in:
Jagori
12/20/2013

By Aditi Bishnoi

Delhi (Women's Feature Service) - On a winter afternoon in Delhi, her dazzling yellow-and-fuchsia Indian outfit brightens the room, even as her infectious smile enthuses her supporters. She instantly has everyone's attention when she speaks: "I am inspired by Indian women, whether it's the girl on the streets of Delhi, an adivasi woman working in the mines, or the dalit woman in the hinterland. In the last year, they have fearlessly told their stories of violence, lobbied tirelessly to change the law. It has led me to believe that things can change. If India can move, so can the world."

When Eve Ensler, American playwright and the force and face of One Billion Rising (OBR), was in the city last year to raise awareness about her campaign against gender violence, it coincided with hundreds of thousands of Indians rising in protest against the Delhi gang rape. Today, she is inspired by how far Indian women have come in breaking the barriers of sound and space, to articulate the issue.

Ensuring a safer world for girls and women is what drives the activist and artist in Ensler. It's her life's work, her legacy. As a survivor of violence, who has spent "most of my life recovering from it", she is prepared to do what it takes. Says she, "I had learnt very early that violence was going to be a determinant in my life. I was white, I was from a middle class background, I was in America - and even with all those privileges I can tell you that it was an incredible struggle. So when I look around the world and see the sheer numbers of women who do not have the kind of privileges I did and who are living in dire circumstances, being beaten, sold, raped, burnt... my resolve to work towards ending violence becomes stronger."

The OBR campaign, which took off in 2012-13, has been her way of empowering women and girls across the world to become the catalysts of change for their own neighborhood, city and society. On a larger scale, it has helped bring violence against women to the forefront of public discourse. But, according to Ensler, there is no country in the world that has responded to her call to end violence as India has: "India has led the way in this struggle towards mainstreaming the issue of gender violence. It has shattered the silence. The terrible murder and rape of the young woman as well as the overwhelming response of the people, activists and journalists has been phenomenal. It has fuelled the OBR movement and brought it to a different level. On February 14, 2013, a billion around the planet used their voice and creativity to strike against violence and Indian girls and women were very much in the lead during the 'rising'."

India continues to be at the epicentre of Ensler's movement and she has indeed found her soul sisters here. Together with Kamla Bhasin, noted feminist and OBR's South Asia coordinator, a host of non-government organisations including Action Aid, Jagori and Sangat, among others, as well as thousands of students and ordinary women, Ensler is now ready to "harness the energy that has been created over the last one year and launch the Rise for Justice".

One Billion Rising for Justice 2014 is about "demanding justice and an end to impunity", it is a "call to survivors and their families and friends to release their stories through art, dance, music, marches", it is about "building solidarity to make the State accountable to women and the marginalised communities".

Explains Kamla Bhasin, "In 2013, millions rose across South Asia and the world to say 'Enough! No more violence'. This year, we are taking the campaign further to address impunity and the lack of accountability that significantly contributes to perpetuating violence against women. We will focus on the issue of justice for all survivors of gender violence. We are happy that women are now coming forward to file reports against even the most powerful elements. Until last year, who would have imagined an Asaram Bapu to be behind bars. We are here to say that no Tarun Tejpal or Justice Ganguly will henceforth be allowed to slip away scot-free."

eve-indiaAdds an enthused Ensler, "This time around, as we rise for justice, though there will still be dancing, we will be raising specific demands as well. For instance, we will be looking at how women are being treated on the job, what's the status of migrant and immigrant workers, how women and girls can freely file sexual harassment complaints, what are women in the prisons facing. After 16 years of activism, I know that one can't end violence against women unless we address all the factors contributing to it. Moreover, experience tells us that justice for women and justice for violence are really hard to come by."

A look at the statistics related to crimes against women in India confirms Ensler's observation. While over 85 per cent of rape cases investigated in 2012 still await trial, only 24.2 per cent of rape trials actually resulted in a conviction (NCRB data). Further, cases registered under Section 498A of the IPC, which covers crimes of cruelty against women, showed a rise of 7.5 per cent in 2012, even as dowry crimes increased by 36.5 per cent.

Apart from the criminal cases, there are other forms of systemic violence too: the Census 2011 puts the female sex ratio at a low 940 per 1000 males, while, it's no secret that India has the record of having the highest number of child brides - about 24 million - in the world.

So from being unwanted at birth to being traded in as children to being violated as young women and then tortured in marriage, Indian women just can't seem catch a break when comes to freeing themselves from the shackles of patriarchy and violence. In such a scenario, this urgent call for justice assumes a whole lot of meaning.

But what does justice mean? What lies ahead in this fight? Are women prepared for it? Who is on their side and who are the adversaries? Is traditional patriarchy beginning to loosen its grip? What about finding a connection with the struggles of groups like the LGBT community or the minorities? Answers to questions like these emerged during 'A Feminist Dialogue on Envisioning Justice', an event organised by Jagori, a women's resource centre in Delhi, the Centre for Policy Analysis, and Sangat. It was part of the launch of Billion Rising for Justice 2014 in the Capital.

During the lively discussion, witnessed by over a hundred students and activists, different points of view emerged. While Kumkum Sangari, author and Vilas Professor of English and Humanities at the University of Wisconsin, found it an encouraging sign that "parents are helping to remove stigma by supporting their daughters, even if it means respecting their sexuality", Ensler pointed to the fact that there are "many good men who are now standing up with women and who are helping redefine the meaning of masculinity". Kamla Bhasin described justice as "fairness in society" and felt that women can't only rely on the police, the judiciary or the government for protection. Another panelist and well-known human right lawyer Vrinda Grover was emphatic that "although women have begun to speak up, they still haven't begun to use the laws".

The process of demanding justice has started - and as the discourse unfolds, numerous ways of understanding and dealing with the issue will emerge. But what Ensler and her group of committed OBR activists is confident about is that, come February 14, 2014, when they gather outside courts, police stations, government offices - places mandated to deliver justice to them - it will be another step towards ending an era of impunity.

(© Women's Feature Service)