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Inclusive dance for legal empowerment in post conflict Sri Lanka

Between July 1983 and May 2009 Sri Lanka endured a civil war from which societal divisions are still felt. It’s estimated that 100,000 people were left with war related disability and there has been little in the way of meaningful support for the vulnerable communities who were left behind. 

A dance workshops in action

A project combining dance with rights awareness workshops has empowered participants with war-related physical disabilities, who were once hidden from society, to be assertive and confident in advocating for their rights in Sri Lanka. 

The AHRC/ESRC-funded research, ‘Performing Empowerment: Disability, Dance and inclusive development in Post Conflict Sri Lanka’, applied two distinct disciplines – dance and law – to promote legal empowerment for people with war-related disabilities. Dr Lars Waldorf from the Dundee Law School at the University of Dundee and Dr Hetty Blades from the Centre for Dance Research at Coventry University, led the project in partnership with VisAbility, an organisation tackling the stigmatisation and disempowerment of disabled people in Sri Lanka.

The VisAbility team applied their skills and years of experience to deliver mixed ability dance workshops in Batticaloa and Jaffna that culminated in either a public performance or flash mob. The dance exercises encouraged participants to explore movement and expression, and to feel less confined by their disability. Initially uncertain about being able to perform, the participants’ physical confidence improved as they became aware of their bodies and comfortable with being watched by others. The confidence and individual self-esteem developed in the workshops helped to empower participants during the public performances. The public performances made the participants visible to their communities, increasing awareness and helping to address the stigma associated with disability.

A dance workshops in action

Alongside the dance workshops, the team delivered legal empowerment workshops that built on participants’ knowledge of the services available to them and their legal rights, including how and where to go to speak to the authorities. Knowledge, combined with confidence and self-esteem, is essential for attaining legal empowerment. Legal empowerment is about strengthening the capacity of all people, to exercise their rights, using a bottom-up, grassroots approach. The project has enabled the participants to speak up for themselves and challenge existing structures within the law. 

The research was funded by the Partnership for Conflict, Crime and Security Research (PaCCS) under the Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF). It highlights how two very different disciplines like dance and law can be applied to empower vulnerable communities. The team are now creating a resource that can help practitioners, academics and NGOs adapt the materials to support their own communities.