The number of women going to college and entering the workforce is steadily on the rise, along with the number of women gaining powerful positions in government and business. However, these are not the only numbers worth noting when it comes to women of the modern world. Consider, for a moment, the phrase “one in three.” Thirty-three percent. One-third. The significance? According to the latest United Nations statistics, that is the number of women around the world that will be raped or beaten in their lifetimes. To put that in perspective, that is 1 billion mothers, daughters, sisters, partners, and friends violated. And, for the Girls' Education Initiative (GEI), a student organization at HGSE, this is an issue that needs to be addressed.
“Although women are experiencing success in the workplace and there is a sense that the women's empowerment movement should be over, one in four women report being violently assaulted by their husband or boyfriend,” said Annie Peirce, an executive board member of GEI. “This issue isn't going away, and it is our duties as educators, citizens, and human beings to be able to talk about these issues and get them out of the shadows. Until we talk about them, we can't fight against them.”
Addressing the issue is easier said than done. According to Peirce, one of the biggest obstacles facing the movement to end violence against women is the fact that it is generally an uncomfortable subject that is hard to bring up without feeling “awkward or insensitive” — a problem she experienced first-hand. Although she was neither a witness to nor victim of violence growing up, Pierce explains how she was confronted with the issue while teaching English in the Peace Corps when she realized her co-teacher, who she had become close to, was being abused by her husband.
“I didn't know what to say, didn't know how to talk about it with her, didn't know how to be supportive. I left the country two years later feeling like I never found the words to tell her how much I wanted to be there for her,” she said. “Since coming back to the States, I've become increasingly aware that this issue of silence — both for the victims and for those who would want to support the victims — is not isolated to developing countries, to impoverished communities, or to any particular region or class. It is everywhere.”
To combat this silence and bring issues of violence out of the shadows, the GEI has turned to targeted programming in order to help get the conversation started. Most recently, the organization is sponsoring and organizing the play, A Memory, a Monologue, a Rant, and a Prayer, which will be performed in Longfellow Hall on March 14. Originally commissioned by V-Day — a global movement to end violence against women and girls that raises funds and awareness through benefit productions — the show consists of a series of monologues that tell stories from many different perspectives around the issue of violence against women. While it is one of many productions aimed at promoting women’s empowerment, what makes this particular play unique is that many of the stories were written specifically to be performed by men, and the cast organized by the GEI includes three male actors. These men, in turn, speak from the perspectives of those who witnessed brutality and did nothing, those who stepped up to protect women, those who advocated for women, and those who came to a better understanding of the complexity of the issue. Taken together, the stories capture a variety of emotions — some are funny, others painful, some uplifting, others just bizarre — working to create a true and profound portrait of how violence against women can emerge in different forms and contexts, and how it affects every one of us.
According to Peirce, this play is the first step to what the GEI hopes will be a string of events raising awareness and education about violence against women and the potential ways of stopping it.
“In the long term, we want to open up violence against women as a topic discussed on campus,” she said. “We want HGSE to be an example for Harvard University as a whole that gender inequality and brutality is a reality in the world that must be addressed if we really want to become world leaders.”