By Amy Hill
From the moment I met Bandana Rana in 2008, I sensed that we would work together. She runs SAATHI Nepal, which has for nearly twenty years been challenging violence and injustice against women at all levels of Nepalese society. We talked about the importance of bringing stories told by survivors into human rights dialogues, about the power of visual media, about the possibilities for storytelling in Nepal. It took time, but three years later the vision became a reality, when I traveled this past October to Kathmandu to begin a SAATHI – Silence Speaks Digital Storytelling partnership on the Voices for Justice project.
Silence Speaks is a project of the non-profit Center for Digital Storytelling, offering workshops in which storytellers reveal and bear witness to personal tales of struggle and courage and are guided through participatory media production methods that result in short digital videos known as “digital stories.” The Voices for Justice project has supported Nepali women in sharing their personal experiences with gender-based violence in an effort to promote awareness and enforcement of the Nepalese Domestic Violence Act.
Nepal has one of the worst records of violence against women in the broader Asian region. According to a report prepared by the Nepal Department of Health Services, an estimated 81% of women in rural communities face recurring domestic violence at the hands of husbands and in-laws. Nepalese women and girls are vulnerable to both domestic and public violence, such as rape, sexual abuse in the workplace, and human trafficking. Although caste-based discrimination and the dowry system have recently been banned, these traditional practices which place women at risk of harm continue to be widespread throughout the country.
Political instability and a lengthy civil war overshadowed issues of gender-based violence for many years. Finally, in 2009, after a decade of advocacy by women’s rights groups, the national government passed legislation designed to protect Nepalese women impacted by domestic violence. While the Domestic Violence and Punishment Act represents an important step towards justice for Nepal’s women, absent effective public education strategies and concerted efforts to push for accountability in enforcement, it is unlikely to make much real difference in their day to day lives.
This is where we hope Voices for Justice can play an important role. With the goal of centralizing women’s first-person stories to raise community awareness about the new law and advocate for timely and effective response by police, legal officials, and health providers, I worked for five days with SAATHI staff and interpreters to support a small group of shelter residents in talking about their lives. We played games to get to know each other, took photos and video clips, and spent a tearful afternoon bearing witness to narratives that describe the unthinkable: the wife who was beaten almost daily, for ten years; the child bride whose in-laws poured kerosene on her and set her on fire; the young girl lured from the countryside to the capital city by the promise of education, only to be held as a sexual slave for months.
Given the stigma that surrounds gender-based violence in Nepal, SAATHI staff and I spent many hours prior to the workshop emailing back and forth about ways to protect the safety of the storytellers. We relied on the principles outlined in the Silence Speaks “Digital Storyteller’s Bill of Rights” (more on this to come in a future post). All of the women were informed from the outset that their completed stories are likely to be screened in communities, at law enforcement and service provider trainings, and on radio and television, to give visibility to the new law. They were offered multiple opportunities to opt in or out of the workshop, as well as multiple opportunities to decide within and after the workshop whether or not to go public with their names and images. (Note: though final decisions have not yet been made, it’s likely that all of the women will remain anonymous in their stories.).
We also took great care to avoid re-traumatizing the women during the process. Some have only been in the shelter for a few months and continue to struggle with recurring memories and nightmares about what they lived through. I was grateful again and again for my own training and experience in working with survivors; for the presence of the peer translators, all young women with whom the storytellers bonded; for the support of the SAATHI staff who assisted; and for the courage of the storytellers.*
SAATHI eased the participating women into the process of sharing their stories by bringing them together for art-making sessions, prior to my arrival. They created detailed drawings of their abuse experiences, which will appear in the final digital stories. During the workshop, we created a sense of safety and protection and helped those participants who occasionally became lost in the past spiral out of their pain and back into the present moment of caring and attention. During the workshop debrief, almost all of the women expressed relief and gratitude for the opportunity to tell their stories in a nurturing, women-only environment.
Because the workshop coincided with Diwali, we ended with a candle-lighting ceremony that gave each of us the chance to express a hope for herself as well as a hope for women around the globe. Again there were tears and heartfelt wishes for an end to suffering. I expressed the hope that my daughter, who turned one in September, will grow up into a world where women can live safely and freely … and the hope that the stories shared in the workshop will lead to positive change.
An anonymous excerpt from one of the stories from the Voices for Justice project:
I got married at an early age without my parents’ consent. I thought that after marriage life would be good, but my dreams were shattered. After the wedding, I found out that my husband was not the person I had thought him to be. …
He would beat me until I was unconscious, and when I woke up, he would say, “I thought you were dead, but you’re still alive.” I was not allowed to work (outside the home), or tell my story to anyone. I felt so alone. …
Somehow my father knew what was going on. He asked me to come home, but I didn’t want to, because I had married by my own choice. … I tolerated all this pain for ten years. My husband threatened to kill me, again and again. I was thrown down to the floor, I had scars and black and blue marks all over my body. My children used to be terrified. When my husband beat me, they would shout and cry. …
Finally, for the sake of my children’s future, and for my own safety, I left my husband. I came to Kathmandu and stayed with my sister in law. She helped me find the shelter, and the stories of the other women consoled me. Now I’m being trained in housekeeping. I know that one day I will find a job and be able to take care of my children on my own.
Amy is the Co-Founder and current Director of Silence Speaks. She is a digital video instructor/producer and public health consultant whose twelve-year history of involvement with women’s health and violence prevention program and policy initiatives led her in 2000 to found the initiative. She is currently finalizing the Voices for Justice digital stories. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This is Part 2 of the series Social Justice Missions and Interview Accessibility.