A collaborative festival to shed light on gender-based violence
Violence against women and girls is one of the ugly realities of life that we try our hardest to ignore. Part of why we strive to ignore this and pretend it’s ‘not an issue’ is because the systems and structures of our world inherently support patriarchal ideologies that put men in a stronger position of power over women.
The roots of this are insidious and run incredibly deep and often, the reality of Gender-Based Violence (GBV) gets hidden behind narratives of female empowerment and advancement. The last few years have seen a lot of awareness and initiatives around GBV come up, but it’s still a pervasive issue.
It is telling that, despite awareness, initiatives, and so-called ‘forward thinking,’ GBV increased exponentially after the outbreak of Covid-19, with a very likely reason being that women were forced to share spaces uninterrupted with perpetrators (in most cases GBV is domestic) for extended periods of time. It is in this context that this year the United Nations is basing its campaign on GBV around the theme ‘UNITE! Activism to end violence against women and girls’.
Inspired by this theme, from 1-10 December, the Independence Arcade will play host to Say No Together, an exhibition and festival of sorts which will feature a collective of voices, efforts, and educational material by over 35 NGOs, civil service organisations, and individuals representing Sri Lanka’s women’s rights movements, coming together to focus attention on the effort to prevent and end intersecting forms of harm towards women and girls.
Say No Together is an initiative supported by the GIZ programme Strengthening Social Cohesion and Peace in Sri Lanka (SCOPE) and is co-financed by the European Union and the German Federal Foreign Office.
The Sunday Morning Brunch spoke to the curator and producer behind Say No Together, Advocacy and Communications Consultant Shanuki de Alwis, for a bit more insight into the event.
How Say No Together came about
Shanuki shared that Say No Together was an event that came together quite quickly: “It was something I pitched to GIZ, I met them when volunteering for a travelling museum which they had funded in November using repurposed containers.
They mentioned they had the containers at their disposal and that 16 Days of Activism was coming up and they were wondering how to utilise the containers. Knowing that the global theme for GBV is UNITE! I suggested that since they already had a space to showcase work [in these containers], why not invite multiple organisations to come and do awareness in one space and unify that call,” she said.
This initial conversation took place in November, and the date was set for 1-10 December for the Say No Together event. The whole event has been pulled together in approximately two weeks. “The experience has been mad,” Shanuki quipped, explaining that at the start, she expected it to be more about letting people know that there is a space to come and showcase work related to the cause, but of course, there is much more that goes into planning an event of this nature. “I’m a single person and not an organisation; I’ve had to pull in a set of resources and ask friends and colleagues to come on board and they’ve been wonderful.”
Of course, the practical logistics of putting an event of this scale together is not insignificant, especially in a market as unstable as ours currently with inflation and environmental factors changing the prices of things basically every day.
Say No Together itself
Say No Together will take the form of a unique 10-day exhibition from 1-10 December inside two converted containers that will be transformed into spaces for a gallery of exhibits, live sessions, performances, and forums on the theme of ending Gender-Based Violence. It will also be supported by a social media campaign which will be launched on 25 November to coincide with the 16 Days of Activism to end Gender-Based Violence.
Collaborators include both large and small national gender rights organisations, from Women In Need, the Family Planning Association of Sri Lanka, Centre for Equality and Justice, and Yeheliya Foundation, to performing groups like Mind Adventures and Prajadiriya Padanama, amongst many others.
“Bringing multiple actors together in one voice is vital for accelerating the impact of our cause,” Shanuki said. “The best campaign efforts by smaller local grassroots organisations and passionate activists often go unheard because they work in isolation and are challenged with a lack of funding and reach. Facilitating this kind of opportunity for collaboration with a number of different stakeholders in a single space amplifies their call for change,” she said.
The full list of collaborators showing or appearing (so far) at Say No Together includes Women In Need, Family Planning Association, NUSS, Prajadiriya Padanama, CEJ, Hashtag Generation, Delete Nothing, Mind Adventures Theatre Group, iProbono, Yellowdot.org, Verité Research, ARKA Initiative, Yeheliya Foundation, Emerge Lanka, Child Protection Force, Enable Lanka Foundation, WERC, NAFSO, Viluthu, SFCG, Chrysalis, Jessica Fernando, Grace Wickremasinghe, Devika Brendon, Kapila Rasnayaka, Yashodara Kariyawasam, Ashfaque Deen, Shhh – The Talkshow, and The Grassrooted Trust.
Shanuki also spoke with Brunch about Say No Together’s efforts to remain inclusive. “We’ve onboarded eight volunteers to help us on the days of the event to act as translators for the three different languages,” she said, adding that some of the volunteers could also communicate in sign language. As wheelchair accessibility is difficult to manage within the containers, there have also been arrangements made for a wheelchair within the container for those in wheelchairs to be able to move through the space and engage with the content.
Given that some of the content can be graphic and upsetting, Shanuki shared that there would also be counsellors on-site as psychological first aid. “We’re cognisant of the fact that some of this material can be triggering, and the Family Planning Association has offered us their counsellors who are trained for GBV counselling to help us do our best to ensure everyone feels safe,” Shanuki said, adding also that the volunteers at the event had been given brief psychological first aid training.
Going beyond the usual women’s rights perspective
Shanuki highlighted that Say No Together went beyond the usual gamut of women’s rights. “It’s not just the women’s rights organisations presenting, we even have a group of sex workers from Puttalam doing a performance to talk about their grievances – things like Police brutality and the taboos and stigmas that they have to live with. They have been so grateful to have the opportunity to come to Colombo and perform without being stigmatised, and Say No Together is honoured to have given them the space and exposure to do so.”
Two of the event’s collaborators – The Child Protection Force and Emerge Lanka – will unite on one of the 10 days to facilitate a full day of awareness on how to prevent child sexual abuse. Issuing a joint statement, they explained that a community empowered with knowledge was key to deterring childhood sexual abuse and that they hoped to prevent the number of cases of sexual abuse as well as the impact on survivors through awareness.
“In Sri Lanka, where systems need so many changes to protect children, empowering communities to keep children safe is a practical way to protect them. We need to educate parents with practical support and knowledge and we look forward to hosting knowledge-sharing sessions where we educate, support, and break down myths to ensure parents and caregivers are empowered,” they said in a statement, adding that parents who were aware of risk factors, understood warning signs and knew what to do in moments where their children were threatened, thereby ensuring that their children were safe and reducing the number of incidents of sexual abuse.
Speaking about her motivation to join the project by exhibiting some of her creative work, poet, legal researcher, and advocate Grace Wickremasinghe explained that since Gender-Based Violence was an issue which was rampant in society due to many complications stemming from Sri Lanka’s cultural and legal backdrop, she hoped that her participation would help promote solidarity. “I’m honoured to be a part of this movement to contribute my spoken word poetry to create awareness on GBV and spread a message of solidarity amongst survivors of violence,” she said.
The impact of Say No Together
With the Say No Together event being put together only in the latter half of November, Shanuki shared that her biggest hope was reaching as many people as possible given the short time frame for promotions. The event’s key forms of promotion are the social media page of the other organisations involved as well as each of their collaborators.
Say No Together also hopes to engage with men and boys, who are most often the perpetrators, wittingly or unwittingly, of GBV. “We’re hoping that the fact this event is free and a lot of the content, especially the live sessions and films and similar are public-friendly (not NGO or technical speak), can help provide certain education and information to the public in a fun way that they can understand and relate to,” Shanuki said, adding that the location of the Independence Arcade also added to this because so many men and boys passed through the space, either through the Arcade itself or the surrounding Independence Square for exercise and sport.
“We also hope that the fact that there’s a collective or organisations, creatives, and collaborators here will bring in a wider audience that is not limited to just one organisation’s following,” Shanuki said. “We’re looking to reach new people, not the same ones who we’ve approached before. We’re not looking for the converted to come. What we’re hoping for is the people we haven’t been able to reach yet to come in and understand the issue and its cause.”