One Billion Rising Protests: Washington Becomes Focal Point Of Global Fight Against Women's Violence

Yesterday was the global roll-out of One Billion Rising – an event created by the organization VDay to encourage people around the world to “walk out, dance, rise up and demand an end to violence against women.”

The "one billion" represents the statistic that 1-in-3 women will be raped or beaten in her lifetime. As it states plainly on their website: “One billion women violated is an atrocity. One billion women dancing is a revolution.”

In Washington, D.C., there were several events organized to honor One Billion Rising, however the central event happened at noon in Farragut Square. Hundreds of people were in attendance, both men and women, young and not-so-young, signs were held, and dancing was in abundance.

A large number of organizations were represented at the event as well, from the National Organization for Women, to Amnesty International, the D.C. Rape Crisis Center, and the Network for Victim Recovery DC.

Truth be told, I expected a bigger turn-out, in part because it is the nation’s capital. Is this a metaphor for our country’s consciousness about this issue? Perhaps. Just look to the struggle over passing the Violence Against Women Act – it only recently passed in the Senate, and is now pending in the House. 

Domestic violence rates in this country remain astronomical. This is not to say that there are not those who are working tirelessly to address this issue – there are, but they are often insufficiently celebrated and supported monetarily.

To this point, there have been some strong, and important, critiques of the One Billion Rising initiative. Natalie Gyte of the Women’s Resource Centre writes: “In asking women to dance in order to overcome violence and rape, focus is displaced and root causes are overlooked, it completely diverts the world's attention away from the real issue of gender based violence and rape with a pleasing-to-the-eye coordinated dance.”  She goes on to argue that Ensler eschews the role that men and masculinities play in gender-based violence (GBV).  However, in a lead-up to the event, VDay collected a number of articles from activists, individuals and organizations, asking them: “How do poverty, economic policy, politics, race, class, the environment and other forces influence violence against women?” 

One of the articles speaks to the issue of the “man box” and how the “cult of masculinity” encourages violence. Furthermore, Ensler herself has spoken rather extensively to issues around masculinity and patriarchy. Finally, Gyte does reference the positive work that VDay has done in places like the DRC over the past decade, so to condemn a one-day event for not doing what the organization itself is at least attempting to take on might not be entirely fair.

Gyte goes on to say that as an awareness raising effort, this falls drastically short of localized educational programs: “Educational programmes on the ground are much more effective form of deterrence. News footage does not equal awareness, educational programmes do.” She is right, of course – but I can’t help but feel that getting hundreds of thousands, maybe millions, of people out on the street in solidarity against violence against women is nothing to scoff at. I can’t imagine that such an event would have been possible just a few years ago. Consciousness is growing around this issue (look at the explosions of anger in response to the horrible rape of a young woman in Delhi, and the subsequent protests that have occurred in other cities – places where rape occurs with alarming regularity, and has for a long time). A friend astutely pointed out how many articles she saw yesterday on GBV, as opposed to just the usual flowers-and-chocolate dribble. And this means something – it must.

In fact, to return to this issue of our country’s consciousness: interjecting stories and events on GBV into mainstream media is of value, in conjunction, of course, with education and other localized efforts.

Gyte reminds us of some profoundly important realities, not all of which I can capture here. But I will echo that we need to be conscious of who takes on the championing of these issues (i.e. yet another white, wealthy women from the “West”), who may feel she “speaks” for the less-privileged. The paradigm of the “developed” world sweeping in to save the “developing” world needs to drastically change, and first deeming where involvement or collaboration is helpful, we then need to acknowledge and learn how to better support the grassroots efforts happening on their own, on the ground, everyday.  (Studies have shown that feminist grassroots efforts have had an actual, real impact – more so than those that might be more highly funded/publicized). 

In this light, we need to hold accountable where our “development” funding is going – are we recycling tried and failed projects, or are we doing the work to find the small, community-based efforts that might actually change something? Ultimately, dancing in the street does NOT end the suffering of those who have been physically and sexually assaulted, but it might say: we are taking our collective (and righteous) outrage at this global brutality, and we are turning it into constructive, reformative, positive energy. 

There are amazing activists working tirelessly in the U.S to address GBV. There are others who focus their attention “internationally.” As Jill Filipovic puts it beautifully: “… the truth is, violence is tragically one of the ways women around the world are united – regardless of our age, nationality, race, religion, class or culture, our very existence as women in the world is dangerous. We may speak different languages, have different belief systems and face different and intersecting oppressions, but physical and sexual violence against women is sadly universal.” 

This is why, on one day in February, I think, why not rise and stand together against this global epidemic? It doesn’t mean on all the other days we don’t dig our “heels” in and do the important grassroots work, and address the myriad complexities that dog this phenomenon in their specific contexts. It does mean that today, we acknowledge that we are ALL affected by the forces that support and allow for violence, and we will not sit by.  We will dance.