I first met Eve Ensler in a bombed-out theater in Sarajevo in 1998. She was already known by many as the playwright of the groundbreaking play, The Vagina Monologues, which she had performed off-Broadway as a one-woman show.
I had not yet seen the play, but my good friend Glenn Close had and, already a big admirer of Eve's talent for tackling taboo subjects in her art and activism, Glenn had traveled to war-torn Sarajevo to perform in a new play Eve had written. When Glenn reached me in my office at CNN headquarters in Atlanta, insisting that I come to Sarajevo to see Eve's play about Bosnian women and what happened to them in the war, I heard myself agreeing to do just that and by noon the next day, I was on a flight to Sarajevo, having arranged for a CNN crew from London to meet me there to document what Glenn had described — a performance of the play about the victims of the violence of the Bosnian War before an audience of women still living in the so-called rape camps outside the city.
I found Eve, Glenn and the other US and Bosnian actors in the final rehearsal of the play, Necessary Targets, and a few hours after arriving, I was sitting in a dark theater with hundreds of survivors of unspeakable violence, hearing their sobs as painful memories were recalled in Eve’s powerful play about a conflict fought on the bodies of women.
Afterwards I interviewed Eve about her on-the-ground work in Bosnia, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Kenya, and the connection between what she was witnessing and writing. Her passion to do something more was so clear, and she talked to me about her vision to use The Vagina Monologues — which was already breaking the silence around sexual violence, creating space for women to feel free to talk about their bodies and their personal experiences with sexual violence — to raise funds to support the activists she was meeting around the world.
"We will focus on Valentine’s Day as being a day that is safe and honoring and loving to women – and invite activists anywhere to perform The Vagina Monologues and whatever money they raise from the performance, stays in their communities supporting survivors,” she told me.
Within the year, V-Day was created — as a movement, not an organization — with a bold mission: to end violence against women and girls, everywhere.
It started in New York City at the Hammerstein Ballroom, where a star-studded production raised $250,000 in one night. Every year since, there have been thousands of productions of The Vagina Monologues in nearly every country and language, raising awareness of violence and generating more than $100 million to support local community anti-violence groups, programs and the activists who lead them.
On Valentine’s Day 2018, V-Day celebrated its 20th anniversary! As a V-Day board member since the beginning, I have witnessed the changes that V-Day and its sisterhood of courageous activists all over the world are creating amidst the ongoing violence that affects one in three women in the US and the world.
While we paused to reflect on the V20 accomplishments last week, many acknowledged the role that Eve, The Vagina Monologues and V-Day have played in the long history of anti-violence and anti-harassment work — which began with Black women in the civil rights movement. What is happening now with the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements feels like a continuum of this work and a long overdue reckoning and awareness that violence against women and the silencing of women who have experienced it is one of, if not THE, most important issues we must deal with as a society. Together, we will continue to dismantle the barriers for victims of abuse, sexual assault and harassment, to break the silence, and to collectively shape new strategies to change the systems that allow and even promote sexual predatory practices and behavior.
For more than two decades, Eve has been saying this and putting her passions into action. She reminded the celebrants who came from all over the world to acknowledge V-Day’s groundbreaking work that violence against women is NOT a women's issue, and men must see this as their issue and become more engaged in all the social justice movements that are part of what Eve sometimes calls, the “mother of all issues.”
Twenty years of V-Day activities and at least two generations of women have experienced the transformative changes that have resulted from one woman’s commitment to art and activism. An astounding number of current women leaders in government and civil society were originally activated and motivated as young women performing in their college or community's V-Day benefit productions of The Vagina Monologues.
At the anniversary celebration, Eve also recognized and paid tribute to three courageous activists: Agnes Pareyio in Kenya, Rada Boric in Croatia and Christine Schuler Deschryver in the DRC — each coming from places where I have traveled as a V-Day board member and have witnessed the transformative changes that come when women and girls are given the opportunity to turn their pain to power.
The evening's celebration also included a night at the theater watching Eve perform her new one-woman play, “In the Body of the World" — a powerful recounting of her battle with cancer and the compelling parallels with building the City of Joy, a healing and training center in the Congo. Like everything Eve writes or performs or leads, this was not just an ordinary night at the theater. The new play is an emotionally powerful experience that touches the audience to its core and, I believe, changes us.
Just as I witnessed in that theater in Sarajevo so many years ago, Eve's words are more than words, coming as they do from such a deep place of profound passion, personal pain, unflinching honesty and courage, and yes, always with that Eve humor that allows us to laugh and cry and mostly, compels us to care.
Eve is stronger than ever physically and emotionally, and as committed as ever to V-Day, the movement and the power of art to motivate change. Marking the milestone of 20 years is a reminder that it’s time now to build the intersectionality of all social justice movements and end all the violence, harassment, shaming, silencing, diminishing, and disappearing of women and girls. That is the goal of V-Day going forward and with the addition of ONE BILLION RISING (onebillionrising.org), a new global action that Eve launched five years ago, billions of women and men are taking up that mission: rising up against all the injustices and inequities that are at the root of all violence.