Bald, brave and beautiful: Those words can't begin to capture the remarkable Eve Ensler. She sat down with me last week, in the midst of her battle with uterine cancer, to talk about New Orleans and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Eve, the author of the hit play "The Vagina Monologues" and the creator of V-Day, a global activist movement to stop violence against women and girls, told me how "cancer has been a huge gift."
Eve's moving essay "Congo Cancer" begins, "Some people may think that being diagnosed with uterine cancer, followed by extensive surgery that led to a month of debilitating infections, rounded off by months of chemotherapy, might get a girl down. But, in truth, this has not been my poison." The poison, she went on, was the epidemic of rape, torture and violence against women and girls in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.
Eve wrote "The Vagina Monologues" in 1996 as a celebration of women's bodies and women's empowerment. "When I did the play initially," she told me, "everywhere I went on the planet, women would literally line up after the show ... 90 to 95 percent of the women were lining up to tell me how they had been raped or battered or incested or abused. ... I had no idea that one out of three women on the planet will be raped or beaten in their lifetime. Suddenly this door opened for me."
Eve began producing the play to raise funds for rape crisis hot lines and women's organizations across the U.S. "We came up with this idea of V-Day," she told me, "which was Ending Violence Day, Vagina Day-reclaiming Valentine's Day as a day of kindness and good will to women. ... We are now in 130 countries. Last year, there were 5,000 events in 1,500 or 1,600 places. It's raised close to $80 million, that has all gone into local communities."
The V-Day movement brought Eve to some of the most desperate places on earth-Haiti, the Democratic Republic of Congo and post-Katrina New Orleans. She spent a year with women in New Orleans, compiling their descriptions of their lives and the impact of Hurricane Katrina into a series of monologues. It's called "Swimming Upstream." Unbelievably, in the middle of her chemotherapy, Eve is directing two special performances in mid-September, in New Orleans and at the Apollo Theater in Harlem,
Eastern Congo, a war-ravaged region of the world's most impoverished country, is where Eve and V-Day have been devoting most of their recent efforts. Since 1996, hundreds of thousands of women and girls have been raped in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, victims of what V-Day calls femicide. Last month, Rwandan and Congolese rebels took over villages in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo and gang-raped almost 200 women and five young boys. The rapes occurred between July 30 and Aug. 3 within miles of a U.N. peacekeeping base, and went unreported for three weeks.
These rapes are brutal, leaving the victims with deep wounds and fistulae that require surgery. V-Day has been working with Panzi Hospital in Bukavu, the only facility in the region where the women can receive adequate treatment. V-Day is also building a woman-controlled safe zone attached to the hospital called "The City of Joy."
Eve said the women themselves developed the plans for the City of Joy, "a place where they could heal, where they could be trained, where they could become leaders, where they had time and a respite to rebuild themselves and redirect their energies towards their communities." If all goes well with her own treatment, she will be joining them to open the City of Joy in February.
The work, Eve told me, defines what she calls a "kind of three-way V between Haiti, the Congo and New Orleans."
With a scarf on her head, having lost her hair during cancer treatments, she was days away from starting her fourth round of chemotherapy. I asked her how she does it.
"The women of Congo saved my life," she said. "Every day I get up, and I think to myself, I can keep going. If a woman in Congo gets up this morning after she's had her insides eviscerated, what problem do I really have? And I think of how they dance. Every time I go to the Congo, they dance and they sing and they keep going, in spite of being forgotten and forsaken by the world. And I think to myself, I have to get better. I have to live to see the day when the women of Congo are free, because if those women are free, women throughout the world will be free and will get to continue."
Denis Moynihan contributed research to this column.