Eve Ensler, Tony Award winning playwright, performer, and activist, is the author of The Vagina Monologues and founder of V-Day, a global activist movement to end violence against women and girls. Since its launch in 1998, the V-Day movement has raised over $100 million towards educating millions about gender-based violence and funding 13,000 community-based anti-violence programs and safe houses in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Haiti, Kenya, Egypt, and Iraq. In response to the staggering statistic that one in three women in the world will be beaten or raped during her lifetime, Ensler created One Billion Rising (OBR), a global campaign that aims to stop gender-based violence and promote justice by organizing a day of action on Valentine’s Day for over one billion women and men in over 200 countries. Ensler spoke with the Georgetown Public Policy Review about empowering women, campus sexual assault, and how to be a leader in social change and activism.
Georgetown Public Policy Review (GPPR): Where does the movement to end violence against women and girls stand today?
Eve Ensler (EE): We’ve reached the critical mass. We see women on the frontlines; we see them coming forward and breaking silences from the US military to Bill Cosby. Anywhere in the world, you pick up the newspaper and violence against women is an issue. So, that’s progress.
What I’m disturbed about is the astounding level of violence and the kind of violence that is occurring. It’s hard to tell—is everything just surfacing or is there more violence? For example, we’ve been looking at college campuses for the last 20 years and have always known that rape and assault occur on college campuses. Do I think there is more or less of it? We don’t have the data to tell!
GPPR: With respect to sexual assault on college campuses, what changes should be made for campus settings?
EE: Colleges need to be safer for women. When you apply to colleges, there should be a grading of the level of safety including how many women are assaulted there in a year, what are the policies to protect women, and how you know you will be safe there. This should be right along with what major you are studying and where you are housed.
I think one of the problems is that we are still not treating this as a structural issue and recognizing that there is a colossal problem of violence against women. We need to look at in whole, not in part—from how we bring up boys, discuss justice, transform manhood and masculinity and work with boys and men who are violent, and how women can come forward to tell their stories and demand safety.
GPPR: What is the role of cultural institutions in bringing about change?
EE: Cultural institutions are the root of everything. It doesn’t matter whether I am in LA or Islamabad or Jaipur or Alabama or Guatemala—we are talking about a worldwide safety goal. It is going to be very hard to end violence against women if we do not question or deconstruct structures and contexts of patriarchy including how we bring up boys and teach them about manhood, what it means to be a man, how we educate children about sex, what it means to be agents of your body, and what is atrocity and consent.
One of the greatest things we have in bringing about change is an understanding that this is a global, regional, national, and family epidemic. I’m very excited about an Asian Summit in Taiwan, which will gather OBR activists of all of South Asia and South East Asia. When there is a global eye, governments are more prone to work faster on these issues. Global solidarity and local autonomy are crucial pieces in these campaigns
GPPR: How can governments play a role in catalyzing policy change?
EE: Governments have to shape policies and, more importantly, implement policies. Movements have the potential to put pressure on governments so that they will implement laws and policies. In the United States, the joint work of the government and grassroots movements has had an enormous impact. Grassroots movements are leading the way, but governments are making policies and implementing changes.
GPPR: How can we empower women to speak up against sexual violence?
EE: There are many things. Any form of dancing is an incredibly empowering tool because so many women are trapped in trauma and their voices have been muted, silenced, and shut down. Finding artistic expression, speaking the truth, and breaking the silence is empowering. I also think that coming out of individual silence and into communities of activism is where women can really find their power. Women can see that they’re not alone and many people have been through the same experience. These numbers have a great amount of power to shift the dynamics and the paradigm.
GPPR: Considering that you’ve been named among the “best leaders” and “most influential women,” what makes an effective leader in activism and social change?
EE: It is important to understand that it is all about how many people we can help bring in and include. When you are in a leadership position, your job is to make sure that those who don’t have a voice and don’t have a platform of getting their voices heard, do get heard.
One thing I am really proud of about OBR is how many people are speaking out. We are doing a series on Huffington Post where every few weeks we bring up a story of an amazing activist from around the world who is doing very powerful work in their community to change the power dynamics. That’s the role of leadership—to make sure that those who aren’t being heard and whose stories aren’t being told and people who have been made invisible, are made visible.
GPPR: What are you future plans in the arena of feminist activism?
EE: I just opened a new play at American Repertoire at Harvard and I’m on my way to do an Asian tour with One Billion Rising Revolution. I’m working on new plays and continuing to immerse myself in this movement so that women are free, safe, and empowered.
This interview, which has been edited for length and clarity, was conducted on December 11, 2014.
About Newsmakers: Launched during Georgetown Public Policy Review’s 20th Anniversary year, Newsmakers is a series of high-profile interviews with leaders making news in the world of policy, politics, government, business, non-profits, advocacy, and philanthropy.
Feature Photo: cc/(One Billion Rising Honolulu)