One in three women on the planet will be beaten or raped during her lifetime, the UN tells us. With the world population at around seven billion, this adds up to more than one billion women and girls. It is this harrowing statistic that gave birth to the One Billion Rising (OBR) movement in 2012, the “biggest mass action to end violence against women in human history.” Culminating in marches and events on Valentine’s Day, this year the theme is “Revolution,” with the movement focusing on marginalized women and bringing international focus to their issues.
Within OBR’s scope, the award-winning Bread & Roses Theatre in London is organising an eight-day creative campaign (running from 7 to 14 February) that aims to raise awareness for and demand an end to violence against women. I spoke to the theater’s co-founder and creative director Tessa Hart about how the OBR Festival hopes to reach out to and engage people on this critical issue through the best weapon there is: creativity.
How did the idea for the festival come about? Why did you decide to join the OBR movement?
Tessa Hart: I’ve been involved with OBR since it first launched. The last three years, I assisted with running some of the big events, and in the first year I also produced my first V-Day benefit performance of The Vagina Monologues. This year I really wanted to step up my involvement and support for the campaign. For 2016, OBR has called for an escalation of the revolution and this is where I escalate the campaign through a festival that reaches people on all sorts of levels.
Having been affected by violence personally, I still find it hard to believe what attitudes we see in our world towards violence against women. Victim blaming is still omnipresent, as is the attitude of just playing it down, making women believe it’s not that bad and best not spoken about. For a long time, I was myself not even really aware of how messed up some of the things are that happened to me and how messed up people’s attitudes who should have been helping me were.
Last year you organized the UNHEARD festival, which was about discovering new writing that explores sexual abuse and violence through theater and performance. What would you say is the advantage of using performance to talk about these issues?
I think my passion for theater very much arose out of the fact that as a teenager I experienced how much you can communicate through performance. Without having to preach and lecture but by just holding up a mirror to society, we can learn so much and be triggered to reflect on ourselves. But when rape and violence is portrayed, it is often just represented as a storytelling device, focused on the perpetrator or shown in a pornographic way. However, theater can go a step further and also reflect on what society and life could be—in better or worse or just different ways. In our performances, the aim was to give the survivors themselves a voice on stage. There’s something incredibly empowering about seeing something that’s been a taboo in your own life represented and addressed on a stage! With the UNHEARD Festival, many people shared, for the first time, that they themselves were survivors of violence, both those involved, as well as some people who had come along as audience members and came to speak to us afterwards. I think it’s this feeling that if it’s okay for us to put this on stage, then it suddenly felt okay for them to tell someone, and it’s okay to listen to other people’s stories and experiences and share these stories with each other. Theater can be an amazing tool to open up conversations, make people think, and contribute towards changing attitudes.
With one in three women and girls suffering from violence, this is obviously a matter of incredible urgency. Why do you think violence against women is so prevalent in our societies?
The fact that we allow it and make excuses for it and blame women for it. It’s like a weird sadistic tradition some people desperately want to hold on to. There are a lot of worrying forms of violence in the world, but there is something particularly worrying about the systematic violence against women. It starts long before the actual violence with the whole system of making women think—even before they might ever become victims of violence—that if they ever did, they would probably be to blame and they should definitely be ashamed of speaking up. They’re essentially blamed before anything even happens, for being ‘guilty’ of being female. I think a major reason why violence against women is so frequent is because there’s no major shock or outrage about it. If these huge levels of violence existed in another context it would be an international scandal.
And why do you think governments are not doing more about it?
It’s a really different situation from one country to another. Some countries in the world simply don’t even see women as equal human beings with equal rights, but instead something that should be controlled by men, so their reasons are bit more obvious and out there.
In Western countries, like the UK, the situation is more complex. For many decades, there have been positive developments and improvements in the UK in dealing with violence against women, though there was still far to go. But in recent years, a lot of the welfare funding cuts particularly affect vulnerable women. There have also been funding cuts to the domestic violence and sexual abuse sector, and women and children trying to escape domestic violence have to be turned away from refuges. According to the Office of National Statistics, in 2015, two women were killed every week in England and Wales by a current or former partner, and these awful facts go on and on (NB: Refuge has put together quite a shocking list). Overall it feels like in recent years the situation has been getting worse rather than continuing to improve. To be honest, I wish I understood better why governments aren’t doing more. The UK government seems very out of touch with what is actually going on in the country and how severely some of their policies and cuts are affecting those already at the bottom of the ladder—but that’s why we need a revolution!
Do you think violence against women is still a taboo subject today?
That’s a tricky thing to wrap your head around, but I think it’s a combination of a taboo and a constantly belittled topic. I have at times been met with eye-rolling or even been laughed at for running events to raise awareness for violence against women and I’ve also received anonymous abuse via email, so clearly there are still a lot of people who seem to have an issue with the pure mention of violence against women. Other topics I mentioned or have made events about have never received reactions of that sort. Again, in other parts of the world, this can be a much more severe situation where a woman must fear for her life if she dares to speak up for her basic human right not to be violated. But I think all these reactions come from a tradition in which some men feel entitled to own and control women and don’t want that taken away from them so they do everything in their power to try and shut them up.
Some people, of all genders, are also just uncomfortable when hearing about the horror of the violence and its extent in the world that they’d simply rather not know about it, as it can be so deeply upsetting and it’s easier to laugh it off as an exaggeration. There are also women who’ve been caught in the system of violence so deeply that they defend it themselves and pass it on to their daughters and sons. It might be the fear of actually having to come to terms with the fact that what might have happened to them, or maybe their relatives or friends, were horrible atrocities and not something that should have been dismissed, or the fact that they don’t know how to or can’t get out of the circle of violence. Overall, there just seem to be so many complex reasons why it’s a topic some people would rather not talk or hear or think about; it’s tricky to pin down to one reason. But this is why those of us who dare to speak, whatever gender, need to stand together on this so badly!
The events organized within the scope of the festival sound ace. The names that jumped out at me from the schedule are Drumming Workshop, Laughing Labia, and Breathless. Tell me why I should see them.
We wanted to have a really wide scope of events in order to reach as many people as possible. There are performance of all sorts, but also workshops and talks and an exhibition. It’s about addressing this topic openly and honestly, giving survivors a voice, and empowering people to come together, speak and celebrate women and owning our bodies! Here’s some input from the organizers/writers of these specific events:
Tom Morley (co-leader of Drumming Workshop): “In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where rape is used as a weapon of war, women sent the Western therapists home. ‘We don’t want to talk one-on-one in darkened rooms repeating what happened over and over. We need to get outside in the air and reclaim our bodies by dancing to our drums. Together with our sisters.’ Rather than export therapy, we’re importing it in London and learning from Africa. It seems to be working.”
Samantha Coughlan (writer of Breathless): “‘Why doesn’t she leave him?’ This question has always annoyed me as abusive relationships are so complex and it is never that easy to walk away. I wrote Breathless partly to help me understand what happened when I was younger but also to attempt to show people how abusive relationships can develop.”
Alice Frick (producer of Laughing Labia): “Since comedy is still quite malestream, it is important for us to feature and support funny women on stage and prove that they are great entertainers!”
Is there a particular performance(s) you’re really looking forward to?
It’s tough to pick, I’m really looking forward to all of them! I’ve written one of them, tu: pɔɪnt faɪv, and this will be its first public reading, so that’s a bit nerve wrecking! I’m also performing in The Vagina Monologues by Eve Ensler and I’m always looking forward to that one. The play is such a phenomenon, a first of its kind in addressing female sexuality and women’s experiences so openly, both heartbreaking and funny. We do it every year for V-Day and it always sells out. Every year we have people seeing it for the first time, but also people who’ve seen it plenty of times before and everything in between. It’s just remarkable what an impact this play still makes and it is also the origin of the V-Day and OBR campaigns.
What do you hope to achieve with the festival overall?
We hope to raise awareness for violence against women and its massive extent, to inspire people to join the fight against it, to bring new people to the OBR campaign, to empower people, to encourage them to speak up, to enable them to make new connections and meet like-minded people, to let them experience new ways of addressing these issues, and to hopefully plant the first roots of the revolutionary change!
Check out the full list of performance and buy tickets here. Join the revolution.
Main image courtesy of www.huffingtonpost.com