To Rwanda, from the Cotswolds – naked compassion

Village women raise funds for rape victims

There’s the landlady standing naked in the pub, the health therapist meditating in the nude, and 11 other women naked either in their own gardens, in the wheat fields of the Cotswolds or somewhere important to them.

Although it is another calendar for which rural Englishwomen have taken their clothes off, these models – mostly mothers from Horsley village, Gloucestershire – are posing to raise money for Rwandan rape victims.

It may seem incongruous, raising money for rape victims with a nude calendar, but so strong is village support that the local vicar has given his blessing and will launch the calendar from the church.

The women, aged from 30 to 55, are quick to distance themselves from the famed Women’s Institute calendar, pioneered in Yorkshire, to raise money for the fight against cancer and which ended up as a feature film starring Helen Mirren.

The Gloucestershire women claim the pictures are more artistic images of female solidarity, than of feminine protest.

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The Horsley Women’s Calendar

This year marks the 10th anniversary of the genocide in Rwanda. Last year a group of women in Horsley, Gloucestershire decided they wanted to raise funds and awareness. This Calendar is their attempt to do just that.

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Sarah Clifford, 33, who knocked on village doors to to sign others up to the idea, said the women wanted to convey “a sense of feelings beyond words” for the rape victims.

“It is to show we have a choice of how we use our bodies and the calendar will not show us hiding behind tea towels and tea cups and cherry buns,” she said.

The women said they felt deep compassion for Rwandan mothers and wanted show it through the naked pictures.

“As mums and wives we were really upset by what we’d seen about Rwanda on the television,” Ms Clifford said. “It seemed unbelievable that 10 years after one of the worst genocides in history, the survivors were now having to deal with even more suffering.

“Women had contracted Aids as a result of rape, their husbands had been murdered, and their children were now losing another parent. We felt we had to act.”

The Widow’s Association estimates 80% of women who survived the genocide in 1994 were raped, and up to half are now HIV-positive.

But could a group of women have come up with a more appropriate gesture to support rape victims?

Jo Hoffman, 55, who also posed, said there had been a lot of soul searching to justify what they had done, with long conversations over cups of coffee. And though their husbands were always supportive, some of their children were horrified.

“So many of us were unsure about the idea,” she said. “It was challenging the way we look at women’s bodies, and how we want our bodies to be seen.”

But by the time it was finished, a year and a half after the original idea, the calendar covered 13 months, so as to include everyone who wanted to be involved.

The group admit that many bristled when the idea was mooted, including the photographer, Angela Williams.

“My first reaction was how inappropriate to make a nude calendar for victims of rape,” Williams said.

“But when I met them I realised their desire to appear naked was not a frivolous one. The images are not intended to be provocative or sexualised, they wanted to use their bodies in an empowered way.”

While rape crisis groups chose not to be drawn into the debate, WomanKind Worldwide’s executive director, Maggie Baxter, said she was supportive. “Initially some people might be concerned that images of naked women are being used … but this actually highlights one of the myths about rape,” she said.

“It is not about sex, it’s not about sexuality or about nudity – rape is about violence.”

The vicar, the Rev Stephen Earley, says he did not hesitate to support the calendar because it was only Christian to help widows and orphans.

“One of the most important things to remember is a lot of people went to churches in Rwanda for sanctuary,” he said. “So it seems fitting to try and redress that balance by launching it in a church.”

After it is launched next month, the women hope to raise £250,000 to pay for anti retroviral drugs to keep the women alive. Ms Hoffman says anyone with misgivings only need look at the finished product to change their mind.

“We know it is a very tight edge we were walking, we knew that when we were doing it,” she said. “But I feel passionate that it’s a good edge.”

Read The Guardian’s special report on Rwanda

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