Arms open, all-welcoming, Claudia Jean-Pierre speaks lovingly about her vagina, relating it to “swimming river water.” With wide eyes, a warm smile and passionate voice, she captures her audience. [3]
Then her face changes, tears form, and anger can be seen in her eyes. She clasps her arms, her feet close, and she is shut off from those in the comfortable seats of the dark theatre. In another place on stage, she describes the painful experience of losing part of her vagina. She speaks bitterly between clenched teeth about the rifles forced into her by soldiers during war and then about those men who forced themselves into her, one after the next. Jean-Pierre may have been acting, but this is no joke.
“My piece is real,” said the social work senior, who performed in “My Vagina was my Village” in MSU’s production of The Vagina Monologues. “It’s something that happens on all levels to all women. The situations may be different, but the results are the same – feeling worthless and unloved.”
Crimes against women occur across the world in many forms. From abusive verbal attacks to unjust treatment causing physical and emotional scars, gendered crimes are more serious than many understand. In the United States, we have often found ourselves living in a bubble created by the media and our own lack of interest in foreign affairs. We know domestic violence occurs, and that it’s wrong. We know some women are bought and sold for sex. The busy college student’s psyche couldn’t possibly fathom that these things happen right around us. But they do. No woman really can live in a bubble anymore, and neither can men.
These crimes are committed every day, and yes, even here in the United States and at MSU. But laws are in place, and organizations are fighting to end this violence, so how bad can it really be?
[quote2]Women as a Commodity
Millions of women are thrown into the sex trafficking industry through threat, force, coercion or deception, to name a few. Women from Bangladesh, India, the Philippines and Sri Lanka enter the sex trafficking industry under the impression that they will be working as maids. Over 100,000 women from Central and Eastern Europe are forced into the industry each year. Aside from being sold for prostitution, the women and children are often beat and repeatedly raped.
“What makes an issue real for you is seeing it,” said Jeffrey Stearns, president of Men Active Against Sexual Assault and a psychology senior. The Sexual Assault Crisis Intervention team at MSU held a film series in the fall, and one film focused on sex trafficking. “We think it’s only overseas, but it’s here too,” Stearns said.
According to the United States Department of State 2005 Trafficking in Persons Report, between 600,000 and 800,000 individuals are trafficked each year, 80 percent being women and girls. Of these people, 14,500 to 17,500 are trafficked into the U.S. The sex trafficking industry has been hard to control because of its global capacity, a lack of reported crimes and possible corruption within judicial systems throughout the world. Consequently, many victims never get out of the system and never get the chance to turn in their oppressors.
Innocence Scarred
In 2002, 43 women in Bangladesh became scarred, disfigured or even blind because of a family dispute. After refusing an offer of love, 19 more saw the same fate. Acid throwing as a form of violence against women is shockingly frequent in Bangladesh. Refusal of marriage proposals or sex, land disputes and hatred are only a few other reasons these attacks occur. Even more shocking are the attacks on girls ages six and younger. Of the 264 attacks reported to the Bangladesh National Women Lawyers’ Association in 2002, eight were against girls ages 0-6 years.
“The idea of it appalls me,” Stearns said. “What could a child have possibly done to deserve this?”
Many of us in the United States are unaware that crimes like this occur. Some of our only sources of information are in books or on the web, if we choose to look for it. While as a population we are largely unaware of this crime, acid throwing still occurs today, with Amnesty International reporting 153 attacks against women between January and October of 2004.
Physically Mutilated
Partial or complete removal of the clitoris, prepuce, or labia of a girl or young woman. This dictionary definition does not do this heinous crime justice. Performed as early as only days after birth or as late as after pregnancy, FGM occurs in parts of Africa, Asia, India, the Middle East and among immigrant groups in Europe, Israel, Australia, Canada and the United States.
“I’m horrified by it.” said psychology senior Elizabeth Schrock, who is involved with a local counseling group called Listening Ear, as well as Take Back the Night, which aims to end violence against women. “It is taking away a woman’s right to make her own choice about how to approach sexuality.”
The practice of genital mutilation can be traced back to different sources. Some believe it began as a requirement in the religion of Islam, while others say it started before that. In some places, mutilation is embedded in culture and practiced openly. Reports of mutilation in psychiatric hospitals of Great Britain and France in the 1800’s claim it was practiced to discourage masturbation among young girls. Whatever the reason, the consequences are universal and often severe.
Lack of sexual pleasure, hemorrhaging, chronic infections, sporadic bleeding and reproductive issues such as infertility and even death are a few among many health risks of FGM. The consequences of this practice are also dependent on the type of mutilation that is performed.
The World Health Organization has declared four types of FGM. The first is excision of the prepuce (the foreskin covering the clitoris), with or without excision of part or the entire clitoris.
The second being the excision of the clitoris with partial or total excision of the labia minora (inner vaginal lips) and the third the excision of part or all of the external genitalia and stitching/narrowing of the vaginal opening (infibulation). The last is pricking, piercing or incising, stretching or burning of the clitoris; scraping tissue surrounding the vaginal orifice; cutting of the vagina introduction, or using corrosive substances or herbs in the vagina to cause bleeding or to tighten the opening.
While the UN condemns the practice of female genital mutilation, it is not illegal in many other countries and communities. Education and outreach programs are also in place throughout the world, but many still ask the obvious question – will that be enough? Another approach many in the United States take toward the issue of FGM is the question of cultural relativity. If the reasons for FGM are strongly embedded in culture, is it really the place of U.S. citizens, or people of any other country, to step in and tell them they’re wrong? But as Stearn said, “If we don’t step forward and set an example, who will?”
Betrayal Close to Home
“I have friends who have been sexually assaulted. You’re left with anger and a powerless feeling,” said Travis Reed, coordinator of Take Back the Night. Reed got involved with activism because he needed to feel like he was working towards an end. “I’m a gay man,” Reed added, “and misogyny and homophobia go hand in hand.” [quote1]
Probably the most universal forms of crime against women, domestic violence and sexual assault are also the most prevalent. They can come in physical and verbal forms and often have long-lasting emotional effects. According to reports conducted in 1999, at least one in every three women throughout the world have been victims of domestic violence. Currently, one woman is sexually assaulted every 2.5 minutes. By the time you have read this article, several women will have experienced some form of sexual assault.
“It does hit close to home, and obviously I’m horrified by it,” Schrock said. “I have one friend who has experienced it, and that was a major reason I got involved with the Listening Ear. Not having awareness is a huge problem.”
The Listening Ear receives about 1,000 calls per month, many of which pertain to sexual assault. Several rape and sexual assault cases are reported at MSU each year but a large number of cases, near 90 percent, go unreported.
“Assaults can vary so much in the degrees that they happen,” Jean-Pierre said. “The shame that women have for themselves and their bodies, that comes from within, from other women, and from men, is astounding. And it can happen when we\’re too young to understand.”
What is Being Done?
Organizations throughout the world are fighting violence against women at this very moment, and anyone can help. The Listening Ear is Lansing’s crisis intervention center that takes calls and counsels in drugs and alcohol, sexual assault, suicide and depression. The Sexual Assault Crisis Intervention team is a student group that provides counseling and focuses on awareness and prevention of sexual assault. Sassy is another group on campus that combats sexual assault against women.
\”I\’m always paranoid about myself or one of my friends walking anywhere alone, especially at night, and I feel like some people have no idea how dangerous things can be,\” interior design junior Ashley Fowler said. \”If they were more educated on the subject, then they might be more aware of what\’s going on.\” Fowler believes events like Take Back the Night arecrucial in providing this education.
During Take Back the Night, part of which is women-only, MAASA will hold a forum for men to speak up about these issues. Stearns said his organization’s aim is to make men more aware that assaults against women do affect them. “By having more people speak up about it, that’s going to get more people involved ultimately,” Stearns said. “People don’t think it’s their issue, that’s just because they don’t know. Men have a specific role in sexual violence. We want to give men ways to help women in their lives. You think this is a women’s issue, but what if it was your mom?”
Started in 1973, Take Back the Night’s ultimate goal has been to stop all violence against women. MSU schedules one day specifically for TBTN activities. On April 11th, activities will start at 10 a.m. and go throughout the day, leading to a march held at 8 p.m.
TBTN also aims to end the myths that surround rape and sexual assault. “It’s not the stranger in the bushes,” Reed said. “In 70 percent of cases, it’s someone you know.” Through myth clarification, these organizations hope to educate men and women alike on the real dangers associated with violence and abuse.
Another way MSU students aided in the fight included participating in V-Day. On February 24-25, women at MSU performed Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues, as part of the V-Day campaign, with all proceeds going to Eve’s House Inc. and the Battered Women’s Clemency Project in Ann Arbor.
[2]The Vagina Monologues, a collection of interviews that Ensler conducted, is performed as a play with each piece relating to women (and of course, vaginas). It aims to empower all women and all vaginas. She wants to spread the word – that word being vagina – and make the ears of people across the world more accustomed to hearing it. As a culture, we are taught not to mention the word. We recognize that “it” is there, but that is the extent of our knowledge. Through familiarizing ourselves with this word and the many issues surrounding it, including the violence inflicted upon it, Ensler believes we can put an end to the heinous crimes. Many of the monologues are humorous and easy to relate to while others tell tragic tales of women who have been abused. This production also works to form a community of the women who perform, and create strong bonds to provide a comfortable outlet for difficult issues.
“I feel like my piece is a voice for all the women who don’t have a group that they feel comfortable enough to open up to,” Jean-Pierre said. “I wish that the people who hear the word ‘vagina’ and think this show is all about sex would realize that women, and people in general, are complex beings. We have to talk about the things in this show – the funny, the sad, and all the in-between\’s – because they are us, and they can make us into who we are at this very moment.”

To find out how to help combat violence against women throughout the world, go to www.vday.org.

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