A peacenik in town
Sally Fisher, who grew up amidst the height of Flower Power, is involved with Intersect, a non-profit organisation, that works with NGOs and grassroot units in the fields of HIV and violence against women.
Photo: K. Gopinathan
Sally Fisher: `Violence comes from not understanding the value of human life.'
THE CONFERENCE room at St. Mark's Hotel was far from silent. Voices within it rose and fell on the tide of visions and missions, encompassing issues of HIV, violence against women, and policy reform. The faces that ringed the horseshoe table included trans-gender and legal activists, a feminist gynaecologist, and NGOs such as Voices, Madhyam, Hengasara Hakkina Sangha, and the Freedom Foundation.
What was the buzz all about? It was sparked by the presence in Bangalore of New York-based Sally Fisher, who set up the non-profit organisation, Intersect, about 18 months ago to catalyse NGOs and grassroots units in the fields of HIV and violence against women "to form coalitions around common concerns and goals, to maximise human and financial resources to stem the tide of these co-epidemics".
"It's the same construct of violence that allows war to happen in Iraq, Afghanistan, or even Kashmir. Or makes us think we have the right to beat women, to rape, to batter people with HIV, use verbal violence, deny economic rights. It all comes from not understanding the value of human life," says Fisher with passion, recalling the February 15 demonstration for peace by half a million people she had organised in New York. "To me, ending violence is about not having to worry about my girls, who are 34 and 36."
What, then, is Intersect primarily about? "I'd say it's about changing the social fabric that allows violence against women to run rampant, that fertilises the stigma that goes with HIV," she replies, her eyes flashing fire. "We need to break this constant cycle of violence."
What forces shaped the firebrand who is Fisher? Her growing years in Chicago were marked by drawings and writings as expressions of individuality against her conservative family, while she espoused leftist causes. Then came marriage and three children. And the peaceniks advocating Flower Power in the 1960s, whose ranks she joined as they were teargassed and confined to a football stadium, while Prague-like scenarios were enacted on the streets of Chicago. "I did draft counselling, helped to keep people out of the war," she recalls of that soul-stirring time.
Engaging with herself, Fisher decided to opt out of her marriage, return to art school, and work at an art gallery. Through visual art, performance art, then theatre, she says: "I still kept my politics alive."
And then came a turning point. "In the early 1980s, AIDS happened in the U.S.. My involvement began when I took care of my first friend who died of it, around 1983," Fisher remembers. "While doing workshops at the Actors Institute in New York, I realised so many people from the arts were infected. Could I adapt my workshops for them? I stressed that if we can be creative on stage, we can be creative in everyday life. I can't think of anything that needs more creativity than saying to you, `You have a disease for which we have no cure.' Given your reality, how do you want your life to be? It was about enhancing what you value in your life, letting go of whatever made you miserable."
Before she knew it, the AIDS activist had helped to create a network of organisations in the U.S., Canada, and the U.K.. But another surprise awaited Fisher in the wings.
"In the beginning, AIDS was a gay, white disease in the U.S.. Then, links to the drug culture, the heterosexual community, appeared. Women at my workshops began to share their stories." Fisher reaches another level of engagement. "They talked about violence, abuse, rape. I wanted to do something for them. So, the workshops became geared to how not to let violence shape their lives."
These strands in Fisher's life remain deeply entwined. Whether as associate producer of her friend Eve Ensler's no-holds-barred play, The Vagina Monologues, or as initiator of the V-Day Worldwide Campaign, which began on Valentine's Day, but now runs from early February to April, with a constant focus on women's issues and free access to Ensler's play. That brings her to the birth of Intersect. "V-Day gave me some seed money to look into the relationship between HIV and violence against women, an idea I constantly talked about," Fisher stresses. "I got a friend to look up existing research. And we launched a non-profit organisation that would create large, broad-based diverse coalitions dealing with these and other related issues, such as sex trafficking, teen pregnancy, economic parity, the rights of children... "
By the time Fisher arrived in Bangalore, she had already catalysed the first four Intersect coalitions in South Africa. What did this signal? In KwaZulu Natal, communities decided to evolve "speak outs", diversifying into a province-wide campaign to dispel cultural excuses. In Western Cape, the campaign will cover access to antiretroviral therapy. Fisher intends to reach out to Kenya and Nigeria this spring.
Earlier, in Mumbai, a group of 20-odd decided to use World Health Day on April 7 to alert the Maharashtra Government on statistics that would present violence against women as a health issue. "I believe in coalition building, but not in the usual sense," Fisher emphasises. "It is essential that people come together where their concerns intersect. What matters is the willingness to give it a try. As with the Bangalore group that is to come together to explore the idea further... "
Before setting out to explore coalition potential in New Delhi, she adds, "I have to be willing for people to decide not to do it. Otherwise, I'll be running my agenda over the local agenda. It's important that each task team decides on the group's direction, form, and format."
Where does Fisher fit into the larger picture? "As I travel to different countries, to diverse cultures, I see that though people do things in different ways, we are so much more alike than different," she affirms.
For Fisher remains a woman driven by a positive belief in life. Whether she's organising a panel on art and activism at the United Nations or sharing issue-driven workshops at Paris and Barcelona, New York and London or sowing the seeds of a coalition for change in Bangalore.
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