Research and the arts can contributing to social reparations for victims of sexual violence

International Development highlight notice project title: 
Debating, Performing & Curating Symbolic Reparations and Transformative Gender Justice in post conflict Societies
PI: Jelke Boesten

How does a society begin to make peace with itself after conflict or a period of war? In a world that seems increasingly divided and conflicted this question is becoming increasingly urgent.

Dr Jelke Boesten of Kings College London has, alongside Dr Helen Scanlon of Capetown University, been building a network of scholars, artists and curators to frame and develop new forms of social reparation in post-conflict societies, specifically for those who have suffered gender-based violence.

“It’s something born out of a realisation that, although there is a lot of scholarship around the role of arts and cultural projects as a contribution to social justice in post-conflict societies, there's nothing coherent yet that looks specifically at the issue from a gender perspective,” she says.

The aim of the project is to explore and develop how the arts can contribute to social reparations for victims of sexual violence, encompassing everything from memory museums to plays, art and performance.

“We have a research network grant from the AHRC, which has let us bring together an ever-expanding network of scholars, artists and curators involved in symbolic reparations in several different countries,” says Dr Boesten. 

“The project primarily focuses on Peru, Colombia and South Africa. But we also have participants in Bangladesh, Chile, Kenya and our latest addition is Sierra Leone.” 

This range of countries reflects a spectrum at different stage of post-conflict transition. For example, one aspect of the project is focusing on the Iraqi-Kurdistan conflict in the 1980s.

“This allows us to compare how issues are discussed, represented and reflected on at different stages of a post-conflict society,” says Dr Boesten.

“We are bringing together artists involved in the field of post-conflict reparations, curators of memory museums, and individual scholars to share their experiences and extend what can be learnt from each other. These different disciplines – and different geographical locations -- can help build a broader understanding of whether – and if so, how – arts and cultural projects have a role in getting a sense of justice for victims of gender-based violence.”

One of Dr Boesten’s main concerns is that within global policy there is a very narrow treatment of sexual violence, which ignores peacetime violence and the cultural norms that might condone sexual violence,” she says.

“Often there is a family or legal structure which makes those types of violence possible, and sexual violence needs to be considered in a broader context. There is a cultural space in which gender norms are made and re-made, and we want to explore a whole range of artistic interventions that could possibly change some of these norms.”

But the project doesn’t focus exclusively on arts and cultural projects. It also examines the different forms of symbolic reparation that come from the state and how these portray gender-based violence in their commemoration of recent history.

“These are more formal ways of symbolic reparation,” she says. “But it is necessary to consider them alongside arts and cultural initiatives in order to get a more complete picture.”

It is Dr Boesten’s hope that all of those involved in the network - the academics, the artists and the curators - are all influenced by what they learn and discover, and inspired to produce a higher quality of work. “By showcasing and discussing how gender perspectives can be affected by social change, we want to contribute to more constructive gender analysis in different countries.”

Also, Dr Boesten wants to raise the profile of both the research and the role of the arts in the reconciliation process. “Currently we are working with a research network grant, but in the not-too-distant future, I hope to identify gaps in research and develop a larger collaborative international research project,” she says.