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The Upside

Best feet forward


Can dance really save the world? No matter what Korean popstar PSY has to say on the subject, feminist Eve Ensler is certain it's a step in that worthy direction. After all, positive psychology tells us dancing makes people happy which, in turn, goads them to positive action. But dance could equally be a statement of intent, a dialect of expression or even a form of activism. The latter is perhaps closer to what Ensler has in mind. 

The playwright, better known as the creator of The Vagina Monologues, has issued a global summons for people, particularly women, around the world to step out and dance on February 14, 2013. It's the day a new global feminist movement called One Billion Rising takes wing, its debut heralded by the percussion of hopefully thousands of feet from Mumbai to Mombasa.

One Billion Rising is a campaign that hopes to snuff out a resilient crisis that has reached pandemic proportions - violence against women. A 2003 Unifem report estimated that one in three women in the world has met with some or other form of physical or sexual violence in her lifetime. One in three women in the world approximately tots up to a billion women - about oneseventh the population of the earth.

The campaign was born of Ensler's plans to launch a fresh crusade in her decade-and-halflong offensive against gender-based violence. Her campaign took form 15 years ago with the institution of V-Day, an initiative to raise awareness and funds through arts-based initiatives for anti-violence movements. "Eve and her small team at V-Day wanted to do something that would be a game changer - an action that would bring attention to the level of violence being committed against women and girls in plain sight and behind closed doors, " writes Susan Celia Swan, part of the V-Day team. "They imagined a global day of action, where women at risk of being violated, survivors, and those who love them would walk out of their jobs, schools and business to dance;this would wake up the world to what is happening and also help to recommit activists to the work ahead. "

UN Women, the United Nations organisation rallying for women's rights, mentions this on its website: '. . . violence against women has become as much a pandemic as HIV/AIDS or malaria. But it continues to be downplayed by the general public and by policymakers who fail to create and fund programmes to eradicate it. ' It's a fact seconded by Dr Armida Fernandez, founder of a Mumbai-based non-profit called Sneha, which works for public health. "We have four verticals at Sneha;one of them deals with the prevention of violence against women and children. While we manage to secure funds for issues like child nutrition, we have a very tough time trying to get people to fund our anti-violence work, " she says. "I've never quite understood why. "

One theory suggests that people don't take gender-based violence seriously. Forget about male prejudices, a government survey found 54 per cent of women, over 51% of men, justified wife beating. In 1994, a World Bank study on ten selected risk factors facing girls and women in the age group of 16 to 44, found rape and domestic violence more dangerous than cancer, motor vehicle accidents, war and malaria. Yet, we have longer, more vocal campaigns on road safety and malaria, and more effective penalties for errant drivers than for rapists and oppressive husbands. The National Crime Records Bureau report for the last year offered a tally of 24, 206 rapes and 99, 135 cases of cruelty by husband and relatives.
Mahabanoo Mody-Kotwal, proprietor of Poor Box Productions, which has the sole rights for producing The Vagina Monologues in India, says she is frequently visited by women who share personal stories of abuse. "Women from privileged families come backstage and say how humilitating marital rape can be, and wish the men who abuse them (technically their husbands ) could watch the play, " Kotwal recounts.

Ensler and the women at V-Day are aware that the campaign for women's rights would amount to a whole lot of sound and fury if men stay away. "Violence against women and girls will not end unless men and boys play an active and leading role in the movement, " says Ensler. "That is why One Billion Rising not only calls on women and girls to stand up on February 14, it also speaks directly to the men and boys who love them. Men who want to stop violence against women and girls are everywhere - including India - and just need the opportunity to break away from the cultural norms that force them into a very narrow definition of what it means to be a man. " Ensler will be coming to India in January for the pre-launch of One Billion Rising.

Kaizaad Kotwal, co-artistic director at Poor Box, says they'll continue to use performance to initiate dialogue, and take the Hindi version of The Vagina Monologues out to rural areas and city 'bastis'. And so collaborations with non-profits and peer clubs, awareness campaigns in colleges and on the streets, and advocacy via theatre will help to further the campaign in India. It'll do what it can to get India's own millions to rise.

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