Of Paper Bags, Domestic Violence and Vagina Warriors

I have to admit it: the title is a bit of a clickbait. And in order to go along with the theme, I want to begin the article by stating that there is no way you could ever possibly believe the connection between bakery paper bags and vagina warriors! If you are hooked, you are warmly invited to follow my line of thoughts:

Some time ago when queuing at the university’s canteen, I noticed that the former greyish paper bags lying next to the counter for wrapping sandwiches had been replaced by a more colorful version.

Upon closer inspection, I was quite surprised to find out that this paper bag had way higher ambitions than just keeping your lunch clean: it featured an awareness raising campaign regarding violence against women.

In the center of the bag it read in big red letters: “Gewalt gegen Frauen kommt NICHT in die Tüte”.

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A possible English translation would be: “Violence against women is out of the question”. However, the German idiom that was used is way more poignant as the English translation lacks the idiom’s double meaning playing with the term ‘bag’. Translated literally, the slogan reads: “Violence against women may not make it into the (lunch)bag”. Printed onto the paper lunch bags, this idiom connected the paper bag with the phenomenon of violence against women by figuratively stating that violence is not to be tolerated.

Underneath the slogan, it was stated that in Germany, every fourth woman between the ages of 16 and 85 has experienced physical and/or sexual violence by an intimate partner. Furthermore, the reader was informed about the fact that in the majority of cases (70%), the crime had happened at home. The data was taken from a survey conducted by the German Ministry for Families, Senior Citizens, Women and Youth in 2004 that was referenced below the information.On the other side of the paper bag, three institutions and their respective contact details were given: the Police, the local women’s shelter and the association ‘women help women in distress’.

I was quite surprised by this innovative way of drawing attention to the actuality and prevalence of domestic violence in Germany: imprinted on the colorful lunch bags, the topic of intimate partner violence potentially found its way into people’s homes or at least to their desks. When sitting down to eat, the unexpected topic might have caused some irritation to the readers and might have provoked some thoughts or discussions.

“Come on, that’s fairly interesting, but what about the promised vagina warriors?!”, you might be asking yourself by now. Don’t despair and please bear with me, we are just about to get there…

According to the police website, eight bakeries within the region took an active part in the campaign and distributed 30.000 lunch bags in total. However, the awareness raising campaign in Konstanz was not the first of its kind and moreover was not an isolated event. In the section ‘Gender Mainstreaming’ (German: Gleichstellung), the online presence of Germany’s capital  Berlin traces back the first emergence of the campaign to 2001. Back then, social scientist and gender activist Karin Heisecke launched the project together with a friend that has been replicated numerous times all over Germany. In a short video interview (3 minutes) produced by Amsterdam-based photographer and film-maker Stuart Acker Holt for his rubric “the most interesting person”, you can find more information on the German gender activist. Karin Heisecke – amongst various other activities and engagements – was also European Director of V-Day, a global movement to end violence against women and girls. Furthermore, she is a supporter of the Vagina Warrior Program (Ha! Here we go!) that was the official V-Day theme in 2006: “Vagina Warriors: The New Revolution”

But who are vagina warriors and what are they fighting against? In order to avoid some kinky fantasies, here’s a description stemming from the V-Day website:

Vagina Warriors are the women and men who have often experienced violence personally or witnessed it within their communities and dedicated themselves toward ending such violence through effective, grassroots means. V-Day 2005 productions around the world from Ethiopia to China; Indiana to India; Croatia to Finland selected and honored Vagina Warriors in their communities generating attention, newspaper articles, and raising funds to support their work.

This year, V-Day events worldwide will build on the momentum by recognizing new warriors and inspire even more to join the movement. Vagina Warriors: The New Revolution will bring to light faces new and old with one thing in common – tireless and creative commitment to ending violence against women.

As it turns out, also men can be vagina warriors!

The Vagina Warrior Program was also taken up by the The City of Joy, a community in the Eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo that is a living, learning and healing place for women who have experienced violence and abuse. According to their website, this community-driven project takes a different approach than most other initiative in the area of violence against women: Here, women are not identified as “individuals that need to be saved” but are given “the opportunity to heal and redirect themselves in a community, on their own terms” (City of Joy website). In this context, the Vagina Warrior Program is described in the following way:

The City of Joy’s revolutionary Vagina Warrior Program aims to provide a safe and empowering community for survivors of gender violence who have demonstrated leadership qualities. The focus is on healing trauma, building self-esteem and skills, and training women leaders. – See more at: http://drc.vday.org/about-city-of-joy/vagina-warrior-program/#sthash.pJhfnLE0.dpuf

In my own research on institutional responses to violence against women in South Africa, I identified different themes that can also be found in the vagina warrior context and hence point to the importance of these globally circulating themes: the ambivalence inherent in helping and supporting women who have experienced abuse, the notions of healing and empowerment, the importance of (life-) skills trainings and more generally, a critique of hegemonic Western theories and practices related to counselling and aid.

Starting this article at the Konstanz University’s canteen, I am sure you cannot believe the article would manage to draw a line to a Kongolese community for women survivors of violence, can you? 😉

 

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