A GOOD SIGN: Kathy and Andrea Yattaw flash the V.
Maria Mendes found her voice last spring, at a gathering to prepare for a trip to New Orleans to celebrate the 10th anniversary of Eve Ensler's The Vagina Monologues. Standing before a group of women, she finally got the courage to talk about being abused, surviving, and fighting to protect other women.
"It took me five years to get to that place," she says, "and I didn't expect it to be on stage."
But the play has that effect, and so does the sisterhood that Ensler has built around it through "V-Day" events throughout the world. Every February, at stagings of the play and other events, women come together and share stories not only about abuse, but about survival, strength, and self-discovery.
In Providence, V-Day has grown into a 10-day festival, this year from February 20 to March 1, with 13 events — the Monologues, of course, plus Ensler's play Necessary Targets, a night of film, readings of women's writing, spoken-word and comedy performances, live music, art exhibits, a fashion show and, to wrap up the week, the Red Tent, a day of "relaxation, pampering, and education" for women.
Local groups and college students have been staging Ensler's work for years, but this is only the second time they've put together a whole festival. And while last year a handful of women organized the events, Nancy Rafi, who ran last year's festival and is running this year's with Mendes, says there is now a 20-plus-member "Pussy Posse" involved, plus major sponsors such as the Providence Renaissance Marriott.
"The festival this year has grown twofold from last year," says Mendes. "You have these women who are from all walks of life . . . and we come together and just click. It's amazing, the things that happen."
Domestic violence and sexual abuse remain a major concern in Rhode Island. Reported rapes in the state have declined from a peak of 505 in 2003 to 256 in 2007 (full-year statistics for 2008 are not available), but that's still about five per week — and on college campuses, especially, national research suggests sexual assaults are grossly underreported. And thousands of domestic violence cases are reported each year.
Yet public awareness has waned. Andrea Yattaw, a social worker and Rhode Island College graduate who has been involved in V-Day activities for seven years, says she finds many young women are apathetic about the issue, which is "kind of frustrating."
Tabitha Glavin, a retired Providence police officer who is producing and directing "Any One Of Us," a reading on February 26 of writing by women who are in prison, says there's still "a tremendous amount of violence against women and girls," even among the wealthy and educated.
"I think women still feel very stigmatized, or they believe that's what will happen," she says, "so women don't report it as much as they should." That needs to change, she says, and "we need to teach our young girls that they need to take a stand for themselves, that they don't need to be a victim."
The festival seeks to convey that message while also celebrating women's strength, intelligence, humor, and physicality at events that are not explicitly activist, such as the Red Tent.
With those programs, Rafi says, "We're bringing in a lot of people who wouldn't normally attend if we called it a nonviolence festival. So we provide information, but we also feel really strongly about celebrating the amazing women in our community."
For more information and a schedule of events, go to peaceprovidence.com.