A little girl stole the show at a One Billion Rising event in Seattle last night. While speakers on stage described the monstrosities of sex trafficking, she did an impromptu dance below the stage. She jumped up and down while spinning and flailing her arms, giggling in her joy. Then the toddler fell down, rolled around a couple times, sprang up and resumed her wild dance.
No one stopped her. This was a crowd that let her dance.
A lot of what One Billion Rising is about is the fear that acts of violence invoke in every woman.
One Billion Rising marks the 15-year anniversary of V-Day, a movement started by activist and playwright Eve Ensler to end violence against women and girls. One billion is the number of women who will be beaten or raped during their lifetimes. The campaign was designed to get the world to strike, dance, and rise to put an end to violence against women and girls.
A Global Action
With the help of more than 13,000 organizations, events like Rise Up Seattle occurred in every single country recognized by the United Nations, as well as in 14 unrecognized territories. That makes One Billion Rising the largest mass action in history to tackle violence against women.
Live-streaming coverage by The Guardian showed breakdancing in Italy, sitar-playing in Cairo, and hand-holding in Bangladesh. Hundreds of schools were involved: orphans watched films about empowerment in Ethiopia, children held signs reading “Le Congo est indivisible” in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and schoolgirls raised one finger up to the sky in the Philippines.
Other events took a more confrontational tone. Women and men in Afghanistan marched while chanting “We need peace” and “Death to any enemy of women’s rights.” Flash mobs took place from Delhi to Lima, Peru, and even on the Staten Island Ferry in New York City. In Austin, Texas, masses chanted the word “vagina” outside the windows of politicians’ offices. Ensler herself spent V-Day in Congo’s City of Joy, the center she helped found for survivors of gender violence in the city of Bikavu.
Many activists are using the occasion to raise support for legislation. Activists in the United Kingdom are trying to pass a law that would add sex and relationship education to the national curriculum. Protesters in Germany are hoping to change a judicial system that allows 87 percent of attackers to go free. In New York, Governor Andrew Cuomo issued a statement supporting the event and urging politicians to pass the Women’s Equality Agenda bill. The bill’s ten points include establishing pay equity, ending discrimination against employees who become pregnant, and strengthening laws that punish human traffickers.
Numerous groups in the United States, including Planned Parenthood, are hoping the celebrations can sway the House of Representatives to pass the updated Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). The bill wasn’t renewed this year, for the first time in its 18-year history, and the updated version contains additional protections for Native Americans, undocumented immigrants, and LGBTQ people.
Seattle Rises Up
Rise Up Seattle, one of many V-Day events in the city, consisted of video clips, speeches, and dance performances sponsored by local nonprofits that work to end human trafficking and support its victims. Seattle has one of the highest levels of commercially sexually exploited youth in the United States, with 300-500 prostituted youth in Seattle today, according to Patty Fleischmann, president of Stolen Youth, a nonprofit that supports the rescue and recovery of prostituted children.
The Rise Up Seattle crowd of about 50—got to hear about this side of the city directly from those who’ve lived in it. When Noel Gomez was only 15, she told the crowd, she was picked off the Seattle streets by a pimp and forced into prostitution. After nearly 20 years of physical and emotional abuse, Gomez escaped prostitution and eventually co-founded the Organization for Prostitution Survivors (OPS). After telling her story last night, she emphasized that prostitution is not a life that any woman chooses or deserves.
But the one billion victims of human trafficking and violence against women aren’t the only participants in this story. What about the attackers, the pimps, and the men who frequent brothels? How do attackers become attackers in the first place?
Today, One Billion Rise
Rise, strike, dance! Join the worldwide walkout for the end of violence against women and girls.
“We need to get beyond the good-man, bad-man thinking,” said Peter Qualliotine, OPS co-founder and director of the group Men’s Accountability. “We participate in these systems everyday even if we don’t realize it.” Qualliotine is trying to change these social systems, beginning with school curriculum. He and his all-male team host workshops in schools, educating students on issues of sexual harassment, acquaintance and date rape, domestic violence, and commercial sexual exploitation.
Despite presenting the horrific facts of trafficking, the evening had a hopeful ring to it. The program concluded with Chris Daigre of EWAJO Dance, who taught the crowd how to perform V-day’s dance routine “Break The Chain.” The entire audience stood up and learned the steps to the dance. Though hesitant at first, participants soon found themselves raising their arms to the sky, stomping the floor, and feeling the joy in moving together.
What does dance have to do with political and social action? “It’s amazing to visibly see the connection that people have to music, rhythm, and dance all over the world,” said Joe Staiano, founder of the socially responsible travel agency Meaningful Trips. “If people can connect through dance, why can’t causes connect through dance as well?”
But no one moved as freely as the little girl who danced alone at the front of the seated crowd. When did we all lose that ability? Though we’re not all victims of rape or abuse, we are all victims of the effect these acts have on the freedom of women.
Much of what One Billion Rising addresses is the fear that uncountable acts of violence against women instills in every woman, explained Eric Magnuson, the father of that little girl. When asked what effect he hopes the campaign will have on his daughter’s future, Magnuson said, “I hope that she can hold on to that feeling of fearlessness.”
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Katrina Rabeler is an environmental specialist at Ecology and Environment, Inc. and a former editorial assistant for YES!