T-Shirts to Protest Domestic Violence

Washington, D.C., Jun. 15 (WFS) -- Inside the large yellow tent, the women worked with an intensity born of anger and grief. Using paints and marking pens, they recreated on t-shirts their experiences of domestic violence. Curses and tears circulated around the tent, the walls of which were covered with drying shirts that bore startling messages: "Convicted for stealing $19, two cameras and a jacket, but not for rape." "The only time I bought new glasses was when you punched me in the face." "I made this shirt so no one can tell me to be quiet anymore." The exhibit of t-shirts was one of the more moving events held during an April rally against violence attended by thousands and organized by the National Organization for Women. It was another example of the work of the Clothesline Project, an ongoing nationwide effort to heal the emotional wounds of domestic violence. The five-year-old nonprofit organization, based in East Dennis, Massachusetts, began as the brainchild of a group of women after they visited the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C. The monument is inscribed with the names of Americans who died in the Vietnam War. When the women later discovered that 51,000 American women were murdered by their partners during the 16 years of the war in Vietnam, which claimed 57,000 American lives, they were outraged. "These women said, 'Where is our wall? We're engaged in a war that has not ended; it has only escalated!,'" says Elenita Muniz, an organizer for the Clothesline Project. She and others decided to create their own living memorial. The group hung its first clothesline on the town green in Hyannis, Massachusetts. It had 31 t-shirts. Since then, the Clothesline Project has strung up 36,000 t-shirts on 246 clotheslines in communities across the United States. Project leaders say these t-shirts are America's dirty laundry, telling the stories of thousands of women and children who have been raped, beaten, molested and abused by their intimate partners and family, usually in their own homes. Women often write their entire stories out on the t-shirts, creating a vivid documentation of a war fought in living rooms and bedrooms. At the nonprofit Sanctuary for Families in New York City, which provides shelter to as many as 250 women and children escaping abuse, the Clothesline Project has become an important part of the counseling program. While making a t-shirt is an emotionally draining experience for many survivors, the process "isn't difficult, but just really joyous," says Kristin Morse, the sanctuary's executive director. "You can see it in the t-shirts. One of my favorites said, 'Single, free and loving it!' The t-shirts were all about the abuse, but some of them were also about the real positive strength and sense of self that had come after." The Clothesline Project works to break the silence that often surrounds domestic violence. It enables survivors to tell their stories in safety, united through the symbolic act of hanging their t-shirts shoulder to shoulder. It makes domestic violence vivid and undeniable. Crystal Daugherty, who made her own t-shirt during the Washington, D.C. project, is an activist for women's rights. Daugherty grew-up in the small-town world of Horseheads, New York. But her girlhood was far from idyllic. Her father, she says, beat her nearly every month for five years. "You know, the whole scenario where the kid gets to pick out which belt. You get to a system where you know that the electric cord hurts more than the wooden spoon." One evening when her mother was out, she recalls, her father started beating her and wouldn't stop. "My father had me cornered up against the side of a desk. I was all in a ball...and he was just kicking at me. He just wouldn't stop. He was in an absolute white rage." The police found her, then 9 years old, hiding in her friend's backyard. It was freezing weather but she was hoping she wouldn't be forced to go home. Home is no longer a place of safety for many American women and children. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, two-thirds of attacks on women are committed by someone the victim knows -- often a husband or boyfriend. It estimates that every day four women die as a result of domestic violence. The National Clearinghouse on Domestic Violence says that three to four million American women are battered by their partners every year. Those who manage to escape dangerous spouses and boyfriends tell harrowing stories of repeated attacks and flight. Theatre Campbell, an advocate for battered women from New York City, is a survivor of domestic violence and a believer in the healing effects of the Clothesline Project. She is working to convince a New York art gallery to put on a display of t-shirts from women across the country. Campbell says her former husband's violent attacks forced her to go to a shelter with her three children in December 1985. Her husband Reggie used to beat her regularly. After once reporting him to the police, he was forbidden from returning home. But the estranged couple continued to meet. He sent birthday presents to his daughter, leading Campbell to believe that his behavior had improved. She decided to drop the criminal charges. Before a week had passed, Campbell's husband attacked her as she lay sleeping in her bed. The only warning she had was the sound of footsteps on her stairs. "When I opened my eyes, all I saw was a knife coming down." Before his homicidal fury was spent, he stabbed her 17 times. Campbell signed herself out of the hospital as soon as she could walk and took her three children to a shelter for victims of domestic violence. Within 60 days her husband was out of jail. Today, Campbell tells her story hoping it will help others. By bringing together women with similar stories, the Clothesline Project is not only breaking the silence, says Campbell, but sharing hard-earned strength gained by women who once felt themselves to be victims. "A lot of women that maybe are not strong enough to really stand up are grabbing hold to the ones that have stood up. And they're getting stronger," Campbell says.

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