In Kenya, reluctant women find strength to tell their stories of female genital cutting. Israeli and Palestinian women share tales of terror and trauma - and acts of resistance. Indian sex workers talk among themselves of their experiences in Kolkata and elsewhere, gradually sharing their stories with wider audiences. In Europe and North America, women reveal their acts of courage in the face of discrimination, disability and domestic violence. The world over, women are taking to the stage to share stories of oppression and subsequent empowerment. And the impact is measurable and profound.
The movement toward women's use of theatre to raise awareness about their psychosocial issues and to raise money for the advocacy organizations that support them is most frequently symbolized by Eve Ensler's now iconic play, 'The Vagina Monologues', and its related annual V-Day events.
Ensler's audacious play in which performers read stories of women's sexuality, and their sexual abuse, led to the birth of 'V-Day', a global movement to end violence against women and girls. Awareness and funds are raised through benefit productions of the play every February (for Valentine's Day) or March (marking International Women's Day). Last year, more than 3,000 V-Day events were held around the world. So far the movement has raised over US$50 million and educated millions about the issue of violence against women and the efforts to end it. Funds are used for educational programmes, media campaigns, safe houses/ shelters, and community-based programs.
In fact, in April this year, which marked the tenth anniversary of V-Day, a celebration, 'V to the Tenth', was held in New Orleans, a venue chosen to highlight the strength of women in the region as they struggle to survive Hurricane Katrina. "What happened in New Orleans and the Gulf south after the flood and storm represents the challenges that women face worldwide - violence, global warming, racism, lack of healthcare and education, financial insecurity, and the failure of local and national governments," says Ensler.
Another well recognized catalyst is 'That Takes Ovaries!' (TTO), a book, play, and open-mike event launched by Boston-based activist Rivka Solomon.
Published by Random House in 2002, TTO - a collection of women's and girls' stories captures a wide range of what, editor, Solomon calls "gutsy acts" - is now in its fifth printing. It has inspired a worldwide movement in which an adaptation is performed either as a play or an open-mike event in which audience members of all ages and both genders are invited onstage to share stories of courageous girls and women. To date more than 500 TTO events have occurred worldwide. According to Solomon, the aim of TTO performance pieces is to showcase real women who have thrown off the yoke of "internalized social messages and conditioning by a sexist, often violent society".
One of TTO's most active countries is India, thanks to the efforts of Kolkata-based Mira Kakkar, national TTO Coordinator. Kakkar works with government and women's organizations, colleges, media and others to mount TTO events at venues as diverse as five-star hotels and centers for prostituted women.
Ironically, before engaging with TTO, Kakkar says she was terrified of public speaking even though she is a self-made career woman who founded an advertising agency as well as the NGO Thoughtshop Foundation. "Today, when I tell (someone) my voice used to tremble, they look at me in disbelief. I still fear public speaking but I have learned to walk through that fear because of TTO. I've conducted more than a dozen TTO sessions now and made a difference in hundreds of women's lives. That's the power of TTO." The TTO open mikes have also, Kakkar says, changed the lives of many other women, "helping them look at themselves differently, loving themselves, respecting their individualism."
Bobbi Ausubel, a drama therapist, artistic director of the TTO organization and contributor to 'That Takes Ovaries!', has joined TTO efforts in India. She works with Mira Kakkar and Apne Aap Women Worldwide (A2W2), an NGO with community centres in Mumbai, Forbesgunge (Bihar), Kolkata and Delhi. The A2W2 was founded by Emmy award-winning journalist Ruchira Gupta whose film 'The Selling of Innocents' documents the lives of women in prostitution. Ausubel has travelled twice to India at Gupta's invitation to work in centers where sex trafficking and prostitution take place and where women are particularly vulnerable.
Women share compelling stories with Ausubel who then helps them tell their tales to a wider audience. One prostitute, Mina, related a time when her room was invaded by 10 police officers demanding free sex. She chased them out with a broom. Another woman, Pira, said that in her village women were not supposed to ride bikes. Still she learned to ride so that she could attend middle school in a neighboring village. The first female in her village to do that, she became a role model for others, several of whom went on to higher education.
Many of the women are outcasts. Getting them to tell their stories can be challenging, she says. In Kolkata an actress was brought in to help women act out their stories. After her first visit, she declined to return, revealing the negative attitude many people hold towards prostituted women, "as if they caused the problem themselves," says Ausubel.
Working with these women, many of whom are trafficked from Bangladesh and Nepal and all of whom are isolated and ostracized, has given Ausubel new purpose. "Trying to help people understand that they are courageous is very complicated," she says. "Hearing other women's stories and the idea that each one of them has value can be very powerful. We try to help them understand that what they are doing, how they are doing it, how they are taking care of their kids, reflects their courage."
The experience is equally powerful for women who participate. Kakkar recalls the lives of several participants, among them a scientist who left her abusive marriage to take up a law degree specializing in women's rights and a traditional woman who went to the police after years of spouse abuse and then became a counsellor herself.
Kakkar leads events year-round, including on International Women's Day, Human Rights Day, Friendship Day and other commemorative holidays. In recent years, she has helped draw attention to women living with HIV/AIDs and to members of the lesbian, gay, bi-sexual and trans-gendered communities. For International Women's Day this year, the open mike featured two young Muslim women boxing champions at a performance hosted by the U.S. Consulate in Kolkata. "Every session has seen women and girls in many emotions, sharing their fun and happy times, sharing tearful and intimate stories and moments. Some of these are spoken for the first time. Each session has been inspirational and a personal triumph for the women," Kakkar says.
But perhaps it is the women themselves who are the best testimony of the success of the project. As one participant put it, "It helped me open up like I never could have imagined." Added another, "Courage, guts and strength. That's what girls are made of. Forget sugar and spice and all that's nice!"