Women join forces to assert equality

In Celtic tradition, this time of year was known as Imbolc, celebrated as a time of new beginnings, as the earth slowly reawakened. It was a festival that was sacred to love and especially women.

Today, of course, it’s all about hearts, flowers, giant boxes of beribboned chocolates and a field day for Hallmark and other makers of cards. But this year One Billion Rising, a global campaign initiated by playwright and activist Eve Ensler, takes a more considered look at the sombre reality many woman face and calls for an end to violence and for justice and gender equality.

A one-day event will be held today, calling for one billion women around the world to walk away from their homes, businesses and jobs, and join together to dance in a show of collective strength; 160 countries have signed up to take part in the campaign.

The “one billion” number refers to an alarming UN statistic, which points out that one in three women will be raped or beaten during their lifetime. Ensler claims that ending violence against women is as important as ending poverty, Aids or global warming.

And she calls to account those elected officials around the world who have claimed that rape doesn’t make you pregnant and parents who have been convicted for the so-called “honour killings” of their own daughters. Dancing, she says, insists that women take up space. It breaks the rules and it can happen anywhere and at any time. It’s free, contagious and it spreads quickly.

This is a global effort to raise awareness of the pandemic of violence against women, whether it’s the shooting of young schoolgirls who wanted an education in Afghanistan, the female genital mutilation of little girls in the Saharan sub-continent, acid attacks on women in Pakistan, the rape of women in conflict zones, or the abuse of women in their own homes here in Ireland.

COMMIT, a new initiative introduced by UN Women asks governments to make national commitments on ending the violence. Today, 125 countries have laws that penalise domestic violence, a huge step forward from just a decade ago. Yet, up to seven in ten women continue to be targets for physical and sexual violence, and 603 million women live in countries where domestic violence is still not a crime.

“No country can claim that violence against women and girls is non-existent in their nations. It is a horrific reality across all countries, in all strata of society from the villages to the urban centres,” says UN Women executive director Michelle Bachelet. “But ending this pandemic is possible if we all come together and address it through determined leadership and robust policies.”

Today, the people of West Cork will have the opportunity to take part in their own protest while enjoying a half-hour dance party in Bantry’s Wolfe Tone Square.

“We expect it will draw a large crowd, because it has been organised in the style of the popular flash mob,” says event organiser Rose Mummery. “It will feature the Strike Dance Rise, which you can view online. Performed to the One Billion Rising anthem “Break the Chain.”

West Cork Women Against Violence has a new leader in Marie Mulholland, a Belfast native and former director of The Women’s Support Network in Dublin. When I caught up with her, she was getting ready to practice her own moves for the big day.

* How long have you been in Bantry, Marie?

>>“I moved down here about four months ago. I’ve always loved West Cork, I’ve visited quite a lot over the years, and I’ve a number of friends down here. It’s a big change from Dublin and I love it. I’m renting at the moment, but if I do decide to buy, one of the things I’m looking forward to having is a garden.”

*You’ve hit the ground running since you got here, what with an eventful AGM and now this event on the 14th.

>>“Things have been pretty hectic. We had Don Hennessy, the author and former director of the National Domestic Violence Intervention Project as a guest speaker and that was incredible. He is a valuable and eloquent ally in the campaign to eradicate domestic violence. And unfortunately, we have had many more calls for help from women during January; women who may have just been managing to hold things together over Christmas.”

*So how did you manage to find time to organise the event on the 14th?

>>“The truth is, it’s Rose who has done all the heavy lifting. She’s been incredible and she’s just gone ahead and got the whole thing sorted out. I think it’s a fabulous idea, women dancing together in celebration of who we are and in protest of what is done to us. It’s a statement of our intent to continue to combat Violence Against Women not with guns or fists, but by reclaiming our bodies for ourselves and proclaiming our right to live safe and free. I’m sure it will be joyous and great fun too.”

nWhat happens when a woman comes in to you?

>>“We have trained support staff and volunteers who will listen and believe in them. We provide support and information and a safe place to talk. We don’t tell a woman what we think she should do and we never judge. She is the best person to know what is the right thing to do for her. Confidentiality is very important in our work but we are legally obliged to report it if there is a threat of harm to another person or if there are child protection issues. We believe a woman’s protection equals child protection.”

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