MIDDLEBURY — Those who happened past the Middlebury town green at noon on Valentine’s Day may have noticed an unusual sight: around 30 women holding signs, dancing, singing and speaking out. It was part of One Billion Rising, an event hosted by WomenSafe in solidarity with gatherings around the world that day to raise awareness about violence against women.
“We wanted something that was an interruption of the day,” said WomenSafe’s outreach coordinator, Foresta (WomenSafe, like other national groups that deal with domestic and sexual violence, does not release its staff members’ last names in public forums because of safety concerns). “To walk out and to publicly be seen.”
One Billion Rising is meant to draw attention to a global issue. The “One Billion” part of the title is drawn from the statistic that one-third of women on the planet will experience domestic or sexual violence in their lifetime. The organizers’ ideal vision was to see that number of women “rising” in a coordinated action.
WomenSafe can attest to the fact that domestic and sexual violence happens close to home as well as abroad. In 2012, the organization provided services to 430 victims of domestic violence and 76 victims of sexual violence in Addison County and Rochester.
Valentine’s Day may initially seem like a strange time to raise awareness about violence against women, but performative actions on “V-Day,” as some activists call it, has been an ongoing tradition for women’s rights groups around the world for 15 years. Originally organized by Middlebury College alumna Eve Ensler, author of the play “The Vagina Monologues,” V-Day actions have been held on Valentine’s Day in locations across the country and around the world and generally feature a benefit performance of “The Vagina Monologues.” The play is a collection of witty and moving tales about women and their bodies gathered by Ensler through many interviews.
The One Billion Rising event was organized in honor of V-Day’s 15th anniversary. Famed choreographer Debbie Allen gave some uniformity to the worldwide events by creating a special dance that event organizers could learn online and encourage the crowd to join in. Individual groups were encouraged to be creative and take ownership of their own events, Foresta said, a challenge that the Middlebury group took to heart.
“At the last minute we put up a sign that said, ‘Honk if you support ending violence against women,’ and we ended up having a lot of people honking at us,” she said. “We had a conga line with some drums. We were just having fun!”
WomenSafe’s move to host a One Billion Rising event in Middlebury was a last-minute decision that left less than two weeks to plan. The group had heard about events scheduled in Brandon — “People were saying they’d seen signs up for weeks” — and at Middlebury College, which hosted a One Billion Rising event on campus from 10 p.m. to midnight on Feb. 13, but Foresta decided to plan something that was more accessible to the broader community.
“I think this kind of event is an opportunity to be seen in the community and raise awareness about what your cause is,” she said. “But I think the bigger movement is really for everyone to think about what they can do to help end violence against women.”
“There are so many ways to be involved,” said Training and Education Coordinator Willow Wheelock.
WomenSafe has an intensive volunteer program every fall. Dedicated volunteers undergo a 32-hour training program that gives them the tangible skills they need to advocate for women and respond to people in crisis.
In addition to staffing the organization’s 24-hour hotline, volunteers can elect to perform administrative tasks, staff community education events, and assist with fundraising.
But Wheelock also believes that an important way for people to get involved is in their daily lives.
“If we really want to eradicate violence against women, we need to eradicate the behaviors,” she said. “We need to call out sexist or homophobic language … and take small steps in our personal life to step in.”
Addison County organizations host many talks and events on women’s issues. Coming up this Thursday, Feb. 21, at 12:15 p.m. in the Robert A. Jones Conference Room at Middlebury College is a talk called “Female Power in Politics: Our Time on the Elizabeth Warren Campaign.”
Featured speakers Anna Esten and Luke Carroll Brown, who are Middlebury College students, recently interned at the White House. The talk will focus on their experiences with gender dynamics in the highest echelons of government on the campaign trail.
WomenSafe’s calendar, which can be accessed online at www.womensafe.net/calandar.html, regularly posts upcoming events.