‘We Have to Work Together as a Sisterhood’

By Zarni Mann 16 November 2013

Monique Wilson, a well-known stage and film actress in the Philippines who has gone on to take up the cause of women’s rights, is in Burma to encourage her Burmese counterparts to soldier on in the campaign to stop violence against women. Back in her country, the 43-year-old Wilson, who has received numerous honors as an actress, has been a driving force behind changes to her country’s laws on sex trafficking and domestic violence.

She is also a coordinator for Southeast Asian countries participating in One Billion Rising for Justice, a global women’s movement to stop violence against women. The Irrawaddy met up with Wilson in Rangoon to talk about her decision to become an activist and the challenges facing women today.

Question: After your success as an actress, what inspired you to become a women’s rights activist?

Answer: In 1999, the Gabriela women’s organization in the Philippines invited me to be a spokesperson for anti-sex trafficking. I didn’t know much about the issue then, but through my partnership with Gabriela, they really opened my eyes to the violence against women in the Philippines, especially in very poor communities. In 2000, I produced ‘The Vagina Monologues’ in the Philippines. That really began a very amazing journey for me.

Everybody thinks, ‘Well, you produced The Vagina Monologue and then you became an activist.’ But when I look back, it was not only The Vagina Monologues that brought me to this place. There was violence in my house as well. My father was very violent to my mom and to us. In the Philippines, we have a culture of silence—that we don’t speak about what happens to women. Even when I was a young girl, I felt that it was not fair and there was no justification for it. So, when I grew up, I wanted to be my mother’s voice.

Q: Now you are the regional coordinator for the One Billion Rising movement. Why did you join this cause?

A: Because I’m an artist and One Billion Rising promotes and spreads the message to stop violence against women with song and dance, I believe that combining the arts and activism has a very powerful capacity to transform people’s minds.

Q: Since you have experience living in Europe and also working in Southeast Asian countries, what differences between the two regions’ women have you found?

A: There are a lot of difficulties faced by the women of Southeast and South Asia. We live in oppressive societies where women dare not speak about the abuses they are facing because of a culture or religion that keeps us from speaking up. It is very hard to break that mold because it is deeply rooted. Women are very scared to break that barrier. At the same time, there are many Asian women who are doing amazing works for their communities.

The economic hardship that we share in the region has created the economic violence, which pushes young women to be victims of sex-traffickers and domestic violence. When a woman is so poor, she cannot go to school or feed her children. For women in Europe, their government has helped them access education, health care, and they’ve been taken care of. We do not have such things yet.

Q: How have you managed the transition from actress to women’s activist?

A: There are risks you take when you are an artist and an activist. I’ve lost a lot of my projects since working for V-Day women’s movements in the Philippines. For example, I am no longer on television, which I used to appear on frequently. And people do not want you to endorse their products because they view you as too political. So, I asked myself whether I wanted to be a celebrity or contribute myself to the country. And I resolved this and now this is who I am. My belief is that if I’m a good artist, people will still seek me out. After a few years, many producers approached me and said ‘OK, you have a political life but you still are good at your art, so we will cast you and that’s it.’

When One Billion Rising happened, I felt that it could really transform society. And we need that, because even if we have many successes with tackling violence against women, the violence is escalating and it’s still a big problem. We still have a lot of violence so there’s a long battle to fight. As citizens of the world and our own countries, we need to contribute in our own small ways to end the violence.

A lot of my friends said, ‘This is such a big problem. Why do you bother yourself?’ But we cannot have that kind of mentality, of seeing things in a negative light. We need to change this for our future, in which we dream of a world free from violence.

Q: As a celebrity and a women’s rights activist, what would you like to say to Burma’s celebrities?

A: We need your voices too. You are known to a nation and also respected, and you have a big voice. Having a big voice comes with big responsibility. And you must use it not for yourself and your career but for the larger majority who are not being heard. What makes a true artist is serving your country and the people of your country through your art and celebrity status.

Q: What would you like to say to governments across the globe regarding the protection of the women?

A: I would like to tell every government around the world this: Violence against women is a major issue, not a side issue or a small issue. Women are being violated all around the world on so many levels—rape, female genital mutilation, sex trafficking and now, economic violence. I would like to tell them to make it a No. 1 priority. Women make up more than half the population of this Earth. We are an amazing workforce. So why are you allowing such violence to happen to us?

Each government and each nation has to really go to the root of the violence. What is causing the violence is the most important question to ask. Is it your laws or lack of laws? Is it the culture? Is it the church? Is it the government because they are corrupt? Or is it that the government doesn’t have policies to protect women?

Is it about education? Certainly, education is important—you have to educate the boys and the men to respect the women. When we came up with One Billion Rising, it was because of a statistic that said one of every three women on the planet has been raped or beaten in her lifetime. That is a staggering statistic. That is not acceptable. Governments have a lot of responsibilities in their hands because they have the resources, they have the reach to educate the community.

For Burmese women’s activists who are facing many difficulties, for many different reasons, I would like to say we have to work together as a sisterhood. With our brothers, of course, who also want to end the violence against women, it is very important to come together as a community, and not work in isolation. We are stronger when we work together. The path is very difficult, there will be many challenges. But you must have faith, you must have hope, and you must be there for each other. It is your brother or sister who will give you that hope when times are tough.

I was so moved by the works of Burmese women’s activists who made One Billion Rising happen here last year. They made it happen with so little time and not enough support. When I met and talked with them, I thought, ‘Oh my God, these are amazing women!’ We need to support them, we need to bring their stories out. That’s why I’m here.