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Monique Wilson, human rights activist and director of the One Billion Rising campaign, writes ahead of her participation in a panel discussion at West Yorkshire Playhouse, on 26 May. The talk will follow the world premiere of Tony Award-winning playwright Eve Ensler’s (The Vagina Monologues) Avocado – a powerful, darkly funny and disturbing monologue describing a young woman’s perilous journey towards freedom.

Two weeks ago I was in the city of Cilacap in Indonesia, near Nusa Kambangan island where death row executions take place. One of my fellow Filipinas was held there, awaiting the firing squad, after sitting in an Indonesian jail for five years. I had come to support her family and activist friends from Philippine and Indonesian migrant groups who had been tirelessly working on her case. These were the same activists who had, for the last few years, organised One Billion Rising events around the issues of forced migration and modern day slavery.

In April 2010 Mary Jane Veloso was promised a job in Malaysia by an illegal recruiter in the Philippines. In Kuala Lumpur she was told the job was gone. She was then sent to Indonesia for the promised employment, with a suitcase given to her to carry. In it was 2.6 kilograms of heroin, unknown to her, concealed in the lining, discovered by immigration officials upon her arrival in Yogyakarta. Mary Jane was fooled by the illegal recruiter, someone from her village whom she trusted, who preyed on her economic need and desperation. She was immediately arrested. That suitcase destroyed her dreams for her two young children left back home, age one and six. That suitcase evaporated her simple desire to give them a better life.

Mary Jane is one of the 5,000 mostly female Filipinos who leave their homeland every day to work abroad as domestic workers, carers, nannies or cooks, and are either trafficked or exploited by unjust labour export policies. What most of society and the world doesn’t see are the invisible hands of poverty that pushed Mary Jane to seek a better future abroad.

She had grown up a child of peasant farmers in the semi-feudal landlord-controlled nation that is the Philippines. There, agricultural workers remain landless and in servitude to capitalist masters, our ruling elite. Poverty is rising and killing its people. Her parents had endured backbreaking work in the sugar cane fields owned by the family of our current president, Benigno Aquino, and could never make ends meet. His family became richer on their sweat and suffering, their exploitation and oppression. Instead of providing decent jobs and wages back home, Aquino’s labour export policy programmes push poor Filipinos like Mary Jane to work in foreign lands.

I thought of Mary Jane and how her escape from rape by her first employer had led her to sit in a cell facing the inevitability of death

There are other invisible layers of her story. That she had first gone to the Middle East to become a domestic worker, but escaped when her employer tried to rape her. That she was a young single mother from the countryside who had not been able to finish her studies. Layer after layer of desperation and need, forcing her to hold on to any vestige of hope for a way out.

In the time I was in Cilacap, preparations were coming into place for Eve Ensler’s new play opening at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds this month, where I will be joining a panel discussion. Avocado is about the brutality of trafficking and the perilous journeys people endure for asylum – for a taste of freedom. And what could freedom have meant for Mary Jane? Freedom to live with dignity. Enough food to eat. To be able to go to school and have aspirations for a future. To have a future. To dream for her children. And as a young woman, to hold this freedom in her body without the dangers of sexual abuse inflicted on her because of poverty and want.

I thought of Mary Jane and how her escape from rape by her first employer had led her to sit in a cell facing the inevitability of death. I thought of how the cruelty of poverty had already raped her many times before then – robbing her of the dignity of choice, of opportunities, of security and safety. I thought of how during the course of her trial – the discriminatory and neglectful chains of poverty had continued to shackle her – our government not providing her with lawyers or proper interpreters, forcing her to face prosecution without understanding the court proceedings. How alone and lost and powerless she must have felt. I thought of how her parents were treated by our government – given the runaround by officials, told to keep quiet about their daughter’s case, told there was no more hope, made to wait. The unimaginable anguish of five years. The ineptitude of the handling of the case reveals a core truth – the poor are treated so unkindly and with no compassion. They are dispensable. Still more layers upon layers of pain.

There is a line in Ensler’s play: “This is why I chose this box. Why I got in. Why I chose this cage over the cage of being caught.” When I read this line, all I saw was Mary Jane. Her beautiful face behind the box of a prison cell. Her childhood lived in the oppressive cage of poverty. Her dreams boxed in the hands of exploiters. Her children chained into a repeated cycle of servitude. I see her white coffin driven into the island that fateful morning, before her execution was temporarily suspended at the last hour because her illegal recruiter had turned herself in. The relief, only momentary, of another box she was spared.

Theatre and art bring to life stories we are obligated to know. Stories that begin way before the headlines. Stories that bring us to the heart of suffering and truth and hope. Allowing us to imagine ourselves in other people’s stories – making us a part of and not distant from, the humanity that unfolds before us.

Only then can we imagine the boxes of desperation. Only then can we understand the cages of need.

Avocado is at the West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds, 26-30 May

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