Supported by Goethe-Institut / MMB and IDRC
In 2016, Zubaan completed a three-and-a-half year IDRC-supported research project called the Sexual Violence and Impunity (SVI) project, which looked at recent histories of sexual violence in five countries in South Asia (Bangladesh, Nepal, Pakistan, India, Sri Lanka). It examined the silences that exist around the issue, and the structures that enable a lack of accountability on the part of perpetrators. It also explored the different articulations of justice for individual victims/survivors and their communities. Fifty-five research papers were commissioned that covered law, medical and forensic issues, historical perspectives, militarization, states of exception and more. The project helped to put together a community of (mostly young) researchers and brought out the results of the research in six country-based volumes and two standalone books.
Stepping Stones (Zubaan, India and Panos South Asia, Nepal) and Body of Evidence (supported by Goethe Institut / Max Mueller Bhavan) built on the SVI project and aimed to take its work further. The overall objective of the projects was to work through creative forms such as theatre, art and poetry, in order to create the social space for open, transformatory dialogues with youth on understanding structures of violence, particularly sexual violence and impunity. Through this, and through the sharing of inspirational stories, we aimed to work towards encouraging youth to become active and key champions of the battle against sexual violence.
Aims and objectives
The working of the Stepping Stones-Body of Evidence projects are based on the premise that despite the fact of sexual violence and its prevalence being widely known, there continues to be a silence about it in society. The legal, medical and judicial systems are rife with prejudice and procedural gaps that make for impunity for perpetrators. The question of bodily integrity of vulnerable populations, in particular women, trans persons, people with disabilities, still remains secondary to issues such as borne out of structural violence, etc. The project acknowledges the seriousness of misinformation amongst young people about sexual conduct and sexual violence. Young people are taught that taught that sex, sexuality, sexual violence and impunity are not subjects to be openly discussed and thus these conversations are repressed in the everyday discourse.
The projects recognize the need to take these questions to young people in order to create conversations that could begin to address the deep silences about these important questions, and to do so in accessible, inclusive and understandable ways. In order to achieve the same, means of cultural production in the form of theatre, slam poetry and performance have been used as the selected strategies of outreach.
Some of the key concerns we have addressed through the project are as below:
- Focussing on young students and professionals in India and with a key focus on medical, forensic and legal forms of sexual violence and impunity.
- Spreading knowledge, raising awareness and creating a civic sense of responsibility about issues of sexual violence among young people.
- Using diverse and participatory mediums such as theatre, art and poetry, to create channels were conversations about the structures of sexual violence and impunity could be had.
- Combining rigorous research, feminist research methodology and praxis, intersectionality and creative expression through these various mediums to contribution to progressive methodologies of change.
Ethical guidelines have been developed collaboratively so that this difficult subject could be addressed while keeping in mind people’s sensitivities and while addressing the concerns of survivors.
Activities under the project
Keeping in line with the aims and objectives of the projects, a number of diverse outputs have been generated in the form of participatory workshops, open studios, artwork, etc. resulting in 50 performances and documentary screenings across India and Nepal.
Workshops and Open Studios: Participatory workshops were held with project partners in India and Nepal, wherein material from the SVI volumes was shared with them, and they were asked to conceptualise their performances that would tackle an aspect of impunity in some way or the other. Open studios were then held in the same locations after a period of time, wherein the same groups were asked to work on the scripts developed in the interim period and provide a platform for peer review and feedback on works in progress. [Location specific reports are below]
Performances: These workshop and open studios led to the creation of performances, performative dialogues, forum theatre pieces, etc. by these groups, taking place over 2019-20. A total of 50 performances took place across project locations:Karnataka, Manipur, Meghalaya, Delhi, Kathmandu, Pokhara. In order to engage the target audience of the project, these performances mostly took place in universities, law schools, medical colleges and other institutions.
Apart from these live performances, eight online performances/performative dialogues were undertaken by the groups through Zoom, Facebook Live, Instagram Live, etc. after the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic from March 2020.
Documentary: Besides using the medium of theatre, a documentary film exploring customary laws in Arunachal Pradesh was also commissioned under this project, and screened in several locations in Arunachal Pradesh in 2021.
The Alphabet of Violence and Resistance
An innovative part of the Stepping Stones project was the creation of a collaborative feminist typographic project which looked at the English and Nepali Alphabet and interpreted them based on concepts of impunity. Titled, The Alphabet of Violence & Resistance, twenty-six English and forty nine Nepali alphabets were illustrated by Dalit, queer, indigenous illustrators, etc. on issues ranging from Dalit Feminism borne from anti-caste gendered violence to looking at evidence as a tool of suppression in the current judicial and legal framework for cases of sexual violence against minorities. The Alphabet of Violence & Resistance exhibitions are currently open for public viewing and as a permanent archival resource.
Zubaan and IDRC’s SVI project emerged from the cross border collaboration of feminists, academics and researchers across South Asia. Following the legacy of its predecessor, the Stepping Stones and Body of Evidence projects also exist in the context of a larger network that spans countries and cultures—they form a part of IDRC’s Give Youth a Voice initiative that spans the 5 South Asian countries of India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka.
South Asia is home to the largest youth force in the world, which faces unique vulnerabilities exacerbated by their geographical and social locations (gender, religion, class, caste, ethnicity, etc). However, they are also best positioned to use the various creative mediums at their disposal to meet the challenges that sexual violence and impunity pose, head on. In this way, they become the drivers of social change. This initiative therefore seeks to support programmes led by the youth in these countries to help them play a critical role in strengthening their communities and societies.
While the youth engaged by the Stepping Stones and Body of Evidence projects (India and Nepal) used performing arts like theatre and slam poetry as a medium to challenge structures of impunity, our sister projects across South Asia looked at youth led research, community-led outreach programmes, art, music and cognitive behaviour therapy sessions with at-risk youth as ways of confronting these structures.
Read more about this initiative and the work of the 8 organisations implementing it in greater detail here.
Performance as Resistance Showcase
Performance as Resistance was a two-day showcase of performances, poetry, documentaries and artwork that question impunity, was a culmination of the work of two years, multiple artists, activists, illustrators, spread across India and Nepal.
Taking place in New Delhi from 11-12 January 2020, the event aimed to open up spaces for discussions on sexual violence and impunity and display the work of the project partners to a larger audience.
Seventeen performances by fourteen groups were scheduled during the course of two days, and each session was followed by a discussion with the performers.
The event saw a footfall of more than 150 people each day, with audience members enthusiastically participating in discussions and posing pertinent questions to the performers. The event also displayed the Alphabet of Violence & Resistance (in English and Nepali) and screened performances of the artists who couldn’t perform live.
Performances from this showcase have been recorded and subtitled, and exist as a part of Zubaan’s internal archive.
If you belong to an educational institution of any kind and are interested in having these performances screened and having a discussion about their content, please reach out to us at email@example.com.
Online engagements during the COVID-19 pandemic
While the project received a small extension, the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic meant that activities could no longer take place on-ground. Therefore, the last phase of the project had to adapt to the times, and activities were shifted to the digital medium.
- Performance as Resistance in Digital Spaces: In August 2020, we held ‘Performance as Resistance in Digital Spaces’, a two part series of discussions about the effect the pandemic has had on the field of performing arts and the potential of virtual spaces in creating platforms to talk about existing, new and rising forms of sexual violence and impunity.
The first instalment of the series discussed how the personal is political, especially when it comes to basing performances off deeply personal experiences and using this as a medium to come to terms with pain and trauma, and to initiate conversations about the same. The final installment of the series touched upon collective solidarity and the elusiveness of justice, bringing to the fore the experiences of performers whose work centres around these topics.
Film Discussion of I Am Property: As mentioned earlier, I am Property is a documentary that explores polygyny and impunity in the context of Arunachal Pradesh’s customary laws. The documentary was launched via an online event in October 2020, accompanied by a discussion on gender and rights in indigenous communities and customary institutions––a recording of the same can be viewed here.