April is Sexual Assault Awareness month. StoryCenter is currently recognizing the importance of speaking out about rape and abuse by sharing new and archived pieces from our blog. Today, MA candidate Marit Erdal shares her work on the power of story to prevent violence against women.
Editor’s Note: this piece was originally posted on Dec. 3, 2013, as part of a series about the global “16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence” campaign.
Storytelling and Human Rights
by Marit Erdal, MA student at the Centre for Applied Human Rights at the University of York
I’ve had a love for storytelling for as long as I can remember. I grew up in a home filled with books, and with grandparents and parents who enthralled me with their stories throughout my childhood. My interest in stories brought me to university, where I first majored in literature. The more I read, and the more I learned, the more I became interested in how stories could be used to facilitate dialogue between people. How personal experiences could be communicated through stories; whether they were created and revealed through literature, photography, films, or paintings. How these personal narratives reverberated in reality, and in fact constituted reality.
So when I started studying human rights last year, I was already interested in exploring how the arts could be used in the service of rights promotion. I was particularly keen to explore how survivors of human rights abuses could voice their opinions and influence policies that directly concerned them. With an interest in women’s rights, I decided in my dissertation to take a closer look at how personal narratives can be used as policy advocacy tools to combat violence against women (VAW), with a particular focus on domestic violence and sexual assault.
VAW is recognized as a fundamental human rights violation that has reached epidemic levels. According to recent data presented by the World Health Organization, 35.6% of all women world-wide have experienced violence, with intimate partner violence being the most prevalent . With much of the abuse taking place behind closed doors and in the private sphere, and due to the shame and stigma attached to domestic and sexual assault, the telling and presentation of personal stories that deal with such violations is very sensitive. Yet it is important that these stories be told in order to build awareness about the problem and advocate for prevention.
My dissertation explored whether StoryCenter’s Silence Speaks methods, which are guided by ethical principles situating the wishes and needs of survivors as central to the process of storytelling, can make a vital contribution to advocacy work. The central research question was: What is the potential for using digital stories as policy advocacy tools to combat VAW? Baseline data was gathered through desktop research and through interviews with organizations that combat VAW in South Africa and Nepal. These two countries were chosen as case studies because in recent years they have passed laws and developed policies to protect women from violence. There are, however, disturbing gaps between the norms set out in their laws and the violent reality that women face on the ground. South Africa has one of the world’s highest rates of men’s violence against women,  and 81% of women in the Nepalese districts of Surkhet and Dang experience domestic violence frequently . With this reality in mind, I investigated how civil society organizations can influence policies aimed at preventing VAW, and how personal narratives can play a role in this work.
Two organizations that participated in the research have worked with Silence Speaks and point to the following as being key as to why they have chosen its methods as a way to communicate personal narratives: the process is survivor-led; the stories bring a human touch that other types of evidence of human rights abuses cannot effectively convey; and the storytelling process, as well as the stories themselves, can make contributions to changing social norms. Limitations include the costs of hosting workshops and running sustainable campaigns, and the danger of re-traumatizing storytellers.
Both organizations noted that in order for digital stories to be successfully used as policy advocacy tools, resources for providing a supportive and safe environment for survivors to tell their stories must be available, and storytellers who initially consent to publicly sharing their work must be given the right to withdraw their stories from public circulation (to the extent that this is possible; the limitations of withdrawal from online forms of distribution must be made clear to storytellers from the outset). One of the organizations also stressed that one benefit of digital storytelling is that it offers the storyteller the possibility to remain anonymous, thereby mitigating the potential for causing harm. Finally, the research suggests that the access civil society organizations have to policy makers and policy implementers in the first place paves the way towards the use of digital stories as policy advocacy tools. A constructive rather than adversarial approach may be useful; digital stories can be presented by organizations in their communications with policy makers, as well as used as training prompts in workshops with policy implementers.
The research findings led me to conclude that there definitely is great potential in the use of digital stories as policy advocacy tools to address VAW. Civil society organizations are currently using them in this way, and additional actors willing to employ ethical storytelling processes are needed in the human rights field, in order for personal narratives to be responsibly and safely communicated and shared.
 World Health Organization – WHO (2013). Global and Regional Estimates of Violence against Women: Prevalence and Health Effects of Intimate Partner Violence. Geneva: WHO. p.1.
 Sonke Gender Justice Network – Sonke (2013). Progress Report to the 57th UN CSW: A Review of Action Taken by South African Government Departments to Involve Men and Boys in Preventing Gender Based Violence. Cape Town: Sonke. p.9
 The Asia Foundation, SAATHI and DFID (2010). Nepal: Preliminary Mapping of Gender-Based Violence. Kathmandu: The Asia Foundation. p.1