Miami Beach police detective Traci Sierra has seen a lot to anger and confound her in the 13 years she has worked in the violent crimes and domestic violence unit. Women who stay with husbands or boyfriends through years of beatings and abuse. Women who call police for help and then attack the officer arresting the man who was hurting them. Women afraid to stay, but even more afraid to leave. Women killed because they believe the man hurting them will stop on his own.
But Sierra takes heart from her occasional successes, like the young woman with a 2-year-old son who finally left her boyfriend after he beat her head against the floor so hard he split her forehead open. Sierra sat with her for two hours before the girl broke down crying, saying “I have to do something.’ ”
“You have to come to a breaking point,” Sierra says. “You have to say enough is enough. If no one takes a stand it continues. Until they address the situation and take control of their lives nothing’s going to change.”
On Thursday, Sierra and hundreds of other women in Miami-Dade will take a symbolic stand at the New World Center and Florida International University campus to say enough is enough. They are doing so as part of a global campaign called One Billion Rising, which aims to get a billion people — the number of women the United Nations estimates will be raped or assaulted in their lifetime — to take action with flash mobs, protests and dances.
The effort, which organizers say includes 202 countries, has brought an unprecedented level of participation to a 15-year-old annual event called V-Day, started by Vagina Monologues author Eve Ensler. Those involved say that violence against women has reached such epidemic proportions that people around the world have reached a breaking point. From the woman killed in a gang rape in India, spawning national protests and international indignation; to the rape of an unconscious teenage girl by members of a high school football team in Steubenville, Ohio; to Malala Yousufzai, the 15-year-old Pakistani girl shot in the head for advocating girls’ education; to an explosion in sex trafficking; violence against women has garnered attention around the world in the past year.
“It’s not like gang rape is new,” Ensler said in a call from the Democratic Republic of Congo, where on Thursday she’ll join a protest dance at City of Joy, a women’s shelter in a country where more than half a million women have been raped in a 13-year-long war. “But finally these stories are breaking through in big ways in the news media and people’s consciousness, which is absolutely fueling this movement on a new level. There are two risings on the planet. One is sexual violence in all these places. The other is this rising of women across the planet who are saying we are over it. Enough already.”
The campaign is tapping into that indignation, and harnessing social media and connections with grassroots activists from Africa to Los Angeles. The website has videos of women taking action in Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Turkey and Peru. The effort has garnered support from figures as disparate as the Dalai Lama to the Prime Minister of Australia.
The centerpiece of Billion Rising is a rousing song, Break the Chain, and dance choreographed by Debbie Allen. People are being encouraged to participate in flash mobs, documenting and posting their efforts online.
Billion Rising organizers focused on dancing as a joyful activity that would be more inviting and less threatening than traditional street protests. And Ensler says that the physical celebration of dancing is rejuvenating for women who have been physically abused, and a powerful symbol of their ability to reclaim their bodies.
“One of the things the women of the Congo have taught me is the way they turn their pain to power, their agony to vision, is through dancing,” Ensler says. “Every country I went to where I danced, I saw that freedom and fierce joy.”
Ensler and her fellow activists hope to harness that joyful energy for the harder work of changing cultural attitudes and laws. In the United States they hope to focus efforts on renewing the Violence Against Women Act, which has been held up in the House since last year.
In Miami, the main events are a street fair at Florida International University put together by student activists, and a gathering Thursday evening at the New World Symphony’s Soundscape Park in Miami Beach, where organizers hope to draw 3,000 people to dance to music by DJ Le Spam and watch video statements from people like detective Sierra and celebrities such as Rosario Dawson and Alice Walker.
“We’re gonna shake Miami that night,” says Lisa Schejola Akin, a Miami woman on V-Day’s national board of directors spearheading the Miami effort. “This is about people becoming aware. What I envision is for people to leave with a feeling of empowerment, that they will speak out if they see this happen.”
Among those gathering at New World Center will be a group from Lotus House, the Overtown shelter for homeless women and children. Director Constance Collins says that awareness is crucial in addressing a brutal cycle, often starting with sexual abuse in childhood, continuing as those women grow up to live with abusive men and often have children who are themselves abused. Most of the women at Lotus House have been abused, she says.
“Imagine what it means to be a little girl whose earliest memory is of being molested by her father,” says Collins. “She doesn’t know how to love herself, she doesn’t know what love is. She is facing a life of continued violence, because she accepts abuse as normal.”
“If we don’t bring light to these issues they continue generation after generation.”
Among those whom Lotus House has helped to break out of that cycle is Monyia Knights, 48, who has lived at the shelter for four years. Knights says her father began abusing her when she was in pre-school. “I felt alone,” Knights says. “I never was protected. It’s your father, and you always think they’re going to change, but they don’t change.” She dropped out of school, became addicted to drugs and fell into a series of violent or dependent relationships. “I had boyfriends, but it was like a crutch,” she says. “I was afraid of men. Then one thing leads to another and I’m afraid to walk away. I was afraid to leave and afraid to stay.”
At Lotus House, where she has gotten counseling and worked as resident manager for three years, Knights overcame her fear. “I went from no self esteem to all the self-esteem in the world,” Knights says. “From having no respect to a job where I support myself and help other people.”
Sierra hopes the Billion Rising effort will bring hope and help to more women like Knights. “Violence against women has gotten to epidemic proportions, and it’s got to stop,” she says. “We have to draw attention to things if they’re gonna change. Or nothing will ever be different.”