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Nirbhaya! Raise your hand and be silent no more!

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In India, it is estimated that a woman is raped every twenty minutes. In Canada a woman is raped every 17 minutes.

On December 16, 2012, 23 year old Jyoti Singh Pandey went to a movie with a male friend. At 8:33 pm, they boarded a private bus to return home. During that ride Jyoti was gang raped by six men and her companion was beaten. They were dumped at the side of a highway. Fifteen days later Jyoti died from her extensive injuries.

The Indian press, prevented from publishing the name of rape victims, called Jyoti, "Nirbhaya," which is Hindi for "fearless."

Outrage at this brutal rape and femicide led to marches and demonstrations across India. Social media was set ablaze. It was as if women around the world realized their obligation to end the silence that surrounds and supports rape. A public discourse was undertaken about the systemic nature of rape; the shame and guilt women feel; the victim blaming they endure; and the need for men to be part of the solution. Three years later the work continues.

Nirbhaya, presented by Nightwood Theatre (the oldest professional women's theatre company in Canada), opened last night at Harbourfront Centre Theatre (Toronto). Written and directed by the internationally acclaimed Yaël Farber, Nirbhaya was inspired by the events that took place on that December night, but it also draws extensively from the lived experiences of the fearless cast putting faces and voices to this global human rights issue. The result is a very intimate and emotional 95 minutes that tears at your soul while demanding your undivided attention.

Violence against women spans every age, income, level of education, nationality, race, ethnicity, and country in the world. Farber, through her testimonial play, bears witness to this truth. "So far the response has been an outpouring of emotions," she says. "Misogyny and sexual violence is a global epidemic not an Indian one. This is evident in men and women from all cultures having an explosively emotional response to the work."

It's fitting that Nirbhaya opened in Toronto in November because it is Woman Abuse Prevention Month in Ontario. 

In Canada:

  • One of every 17 Canadian women is raped at some point in her life.
  • Only between two and four per cent of reported rapes are false accusations.
  • Girls and young women between the ages of 15 and 24 are the most likely victims.
  • 80 per cent of assaults happen in the victim's home.
  • 70 per cent of rapes are committed by a perpetrator who knows the victim, such as a relative, friend, neighbour, colleague or acquaintance.
  • Approximately one half of all rapes occur on dates.
  • 62 per cent of victims are physically injured in the attack; nine per cent are beaten severely or disfigured.
  • 83 per cent of women with disabilities will be sexually assaulted during their lifetime.
  • Aboriginal women experience violence at a rate three and a half times greater than non-Aboriginal women.
  • Young Aboriginal women are five times more likely to die of violence than Canadian women of the same age.
  • Every six days a woman is killed by her current or former partner.
  • The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (2013) estimates the cost of sexual assault and intimate partner violence is $9 billion annually or about $334 per Canadian each year.

Women are reluctant to disclose rape to authorities because they fear not being believed as well as being blamed. It's very difficult to trust police or the justice system when those in power are part of the problem.

"Rules are like women, made to be violated" -- Quebec Judge Denys Dionne (1989). 

Nirbhaya removes the shame from victims and places it squarely on the shoulders of the perpetrators.  The play then demands that they be held accountable for their actions. Farber says:

"This work begins the simple act of breaking the silence that survivors carry their stories shrouded in and the resulting guilt and shame they erroneously assume in the wake of such experiences. By speaking out with this work from a testimonial base by the performers we want to create a ripple effect of walking ahead with the lamp and saying: 'The only way to begin is to speak openly about what has happened to you.' This is our humble and wildly ambitious hope for what we want to achieve with this work."

Without a doubt, Nirbhaya will continue to be an important catalyst for change in ending violence against women and children around the world.

Recently named Critics' Pick by the New York Times, Nirbhaya premiered at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2013 and won the coveted Amnesty International Freedom of Expression Award, the Scotsman Fringe First Award and the Herald Angel Award for Outstanding New Play. It runs from November 18 to 29, 2015 at the Harbourfront Centre Theatre (Toronto). Tickets can be purchased over the telephone at 416.973.4000 or online at www.nightwoodtheatre.net.

Post-show discussions on ending violence against women will take place on:

  • Wednesday, November 18 -- with writer and director Yaël Farber, and producer and performer Poorna Jagannathan.
  • Friday, November 20 -- facilitated by journalist, investigative author, broadcaster, and lawyer Paula Todd.
  • Saturday, November 21 -- facilitated by social activist Kate Bojin from the White Ribbon Campaign.
  • Sunday, November 22 -- TBD.
  • Thursday, November 26 -- facilitated by journalist, author, public speaker, and social activist Michele Landsberg.

Nirbhaya asks each of us to take a moment to raise your hand to help break the silence at #EndTheSilence. 

Nirbhaya is an Assembly, Riverside Studios and Poorna Jagannathan Production.

Nirbhaya is presented in association with Amnesty International's Action Network for Women's Human Rights. Amnesty International is a global movement of over seven million people in more than 150 countries working together to protect and promote human rights.

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