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Eve Ensler Calls for a Billion Women to Strike Against Sexual Violence

The Vagina Monologues shot writer Eve Ensler to stardom. Now she is a global campaigner who plans to call a billion women out on strike against rape.

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This approach won't endear her to radical feminists, but then Ensler has divided feminists already. Germaine Greer, who appeared in a British production of The Vagina Monologues, called it a "much-hyped and fundamentally unchallenging piece of buffoonish American hoop-la". Camille Paglia has attacked Ensler, writing that she represented a "painfully outmoded branch of feminism" in one piece, describing her as a "feverish charlatan and cultist" in another. About Greer, Ensler smiles and says she "felt sad, but she has a right to feel what she feels. There is much she has done that I really respect. The older you get, the more you are aware that everybody has a certain way of seeing things, which they have to honour."

Ensler grew up in a wealthy New York suburb. Her father was a food company executive, her mother stayed at home. In her 2007 book Insecure at Last, written partly as a response to the US obsession with "security" after 9/11, but also as a memoir, she revealed the ideal to be an illusion. The reality was that her father physically and sexually abused her.

"I could never imagine life past 30, and I came close to making sure I didn't get there," she wrote. In her early twenties she was addicted to drugs and alcohol, getting clean when she met and married her husband and adopted his teenage son. In the following years she worked as an activist for homeless women, and in the anti-nuclear movement, and wrote plays that had a bit of success in New York. Then came The Vagina Monologues. It brought her awards, money, fame, celebrity supporters – and most importantly, she says, access to power and a platform.

Earlier this year, Ensler opened City of Joy, a centre in Congo that rehabilitates survivors of  rape. The stories that have come from the women of this small central African country are unimaginable – women tied to trees and gangraped for weeks, women raped with sticks and bottles, even guns, women whose sons and fathers were forced at gunpoint to violate them. The centre is now home to 40 women who will have counselling, learn English, literacy and computer skills, become practised communicators and effective leaders. "It's the most joyful place I've ever been in my life," says Ensler. "In the midst of the worst circumstances, there is this city growing up, and I really believe these women will be the future of Congo. The Congo was a turning point in my life. I had been to many places where women were suffering, but the Congo was really shattering." Because of the extremity of the violence? She nods. "To think that, in this century, any woman would be treated that way with the knowledge of the world just felt unbearable."

She says it was the Congolese women who "got me through it" when she was diagnosed with cancer of the uterus last year. "We were building and opening City of Joy and my part of the bargain was to find the funds, so I had to live to do that. In that sense, they really saved my life, because I had to get up every day and keep moving forward." Claims that life-threatening illness can be transformative can often seem trite, but Ensler, who says her prognosis is good, is convincing. "It was the worst experience that turned into a really kind of wonderful experience," she says. "I have a lot of energy coming out of it and I don't really understand it. I also love being alive, it's fantastic – particularly when you come close to losing it. It was so momentous and so catastrophic that it changed me, and got me to finally let go of so much that I was holding on to."

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