Performing Arts and Social Violence: Innovating Research Approaches to Sexual and Gender-based Violence in the Global South


Susan Fitzmaurice, University of Sheffield
Stephen Forcer, University of Glasgow
Laura Martin, University of Nottingham
Aisha Fofana Ibrahim, University of Sierra Leone
Marie- Heléen Coetzee, University of Pretoria
Helen Shutt, University of Glasgow
Timap for Justice

Executive Summary

Sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) is a global epidemic. It has been estimated that one in three women worldwide is subjected to physical and/or sexual violence during their lifetime. And yet, there is a paradox between the commonality of SGBV and the ability to speak and address these issues openly.  Some of the reasons and rationales for this are culturally specific, but the fact remains universal – it is difficult to talk about and address SGBV. 

Fighting SGBV is a stated objective for numerous governments and international organisations, as well as researchers. However, methods and approaches can be heavily standardized and bureaucratic, taking no account of the range of emotion involved in tackling SGBV. Relying on these risks neglecting the fundamentally complex and contradictory dynamics of SGBV, and limiting the effectiveness of discussions about it. Driven by a belief in the power of the arts and humanities to provide playful, creative, and counter-intuitive responses to urgent problems, this project used comedy, theatre, song and dance in activities run for women and men in partnership with established NGOs. Emphatically, the project’s findings illustrated how ‘fun’ arts approaches (such as humour and improvisation) may be highly effective in opening up very sensitive conversations about deadly serious topics. Instead of being disrespectful or incongruous responses to the matter, they may provide insights into how concepts such as violence are understood contextually and culturally.  Thus these methods have the capacity to open up completely new ways of understanding these notions in order to address them. The methodological headlines of the project have already been published in a peer-reviewed academic article entitled “Embracing Aporia: Exploring Arts-based Methods, Pain, “Playfulness” and Improvisation in Research on Gender and Social Violence.” Some of the conceptual findings around performance and dramaturgy in the midst of workshops can also be found in the forthcoming article “The Theatre of Development: Dramaturgy, Actors and Performances in the ‘Workshop Space’” in Third World Quarterly.

The project was evidenced by fieldwork and workshops in Sierra Leone and South Africa. The scoping work highlighted the extent to which SGBV research in the Global South is directly relevant to the Global North. While this project conducted research primarily in the Global South, the findings have broader implications for exploring the nuanced ways in which SGBV is an acute, pernicious global epidemic embedded in the subtleties of individual and collective attitudes and behaviours. In addition to known drivers of SGBV (such as socio-economic privation), there are drivers that are not as well understood. These include socio-cultural narratives supporting individual and institutional responses to stereotypical notions of masculinity and femininity (e.g. men’s treatment of wives as property and the complicity of police); the affordances of technology (e.g. easy access to pornography); the enabling role of local institutions and social norms that create barriers to justice; discourses of sex and sexual roles; and geographically and culturally inflected gender performances. Without understanding these drivers, it is impossible to find ways to stem the tide of SGBV, safeguard victims and survivors, and change the behaviours that perpetuate the cycles of social violence globally.

Developing this work, therefore, requires new funding streams and award schemes that promote the co-construction by academic and community researchers of creative, discovery-led, longitudinal work. Any ambitious new funding programme should facilitate broader comparative case studies, alongside the further development and deployment of arts and humanities-led interdisciplinary approaches, and expand existing innovations to advance the field. Funded projects should include capacity building, e.g. research training for community participants and for NGO members; doctoral training for local researchers at local universities; institutions and infrastructure to support ongoing work beyond the life of a project. These programmes should be international and integrate the practice of international exchange between the Global North and South to enable comparative study of SGBV cultures and explore the universality of the nuances driving social violence and allow scope for extensive knowledge exchange across these contexts. This should include provision for Global South researchers to participate materially in fieldwork and research activities in the Global North. 

Methodologically, this project strongly endorses the use of arts-based methods, including comedy, song and dance, and theatre, to engage audiences in discussions around SGBV.  The scoping project identified a major new research opportunity for the urgent use of arts and humanities-led interdisciplinary approaches to explore the subtle ways in which social violence, specifically sex and gender-based violence, manifests and persists. The exercise confirmed that arts-based methods (when used meaningfully and appropriately) can facilitate discussion about sensitive subject matter, including SGBV, and may in fact be a ‘natural’ or intuitive way of engaging with this discussion. It also highlighted the value of approaching the design and conduct of research in different ways. These include the need for research to be slow or incremental: that is, building relationships and trust with communities and project partners, co-designing projects and performances with the full research teams and returning to locations over time and for research to involve exchanges. Further, instead of focussing on pre-determined outcomes, arts-based methods enable researchers to maintain flexibility and remain open to travelling where the research leads.  Following the affective turn in applied theatre, we aimed to engage the sensory, embodied and affective power of performance and produce certain sensory effects in relation to a particular theme (here, SGBV). Our team are sceptical about transformational, interventionist projects, and recommend that emphasis be placed on how to engage with existing practices as methods that open up difficult conversations and move people emotionally and physically. We argue that fun and playfulness should not be dismissed in the face of sensitive subjects such as SGBV, but rather more fully embraced and explored in greater depth. This means moving away from using flat, binary data as evidence and results, and instead having the intellectual conviction to back the potential of this sensory, ludic, proleptic approach to methods, evidence and outcomes.

Approach and Methodology

The project involved scoping existing arts-based approaches within the literature and conducting fieldwork first hand using a loose methodological approach that could be contextually adapted and iteratively applied in both Sierra Leone and South Africa. The literature review involved a comprehensive literature review accompanied by ‘live’ elements, which involved academics, performers, NGOs and policymakers working across the globe.  

Scoping existing literature and practice

The literature scoping exercise generated a set of questions which informed the design of the international fieldwork in Sierra Leone and South Africa and the further engagement with researchers and practitioners. Key topics in the field include:

Applied Theatre Methods Used with Existing Performance Customs

  • Is the efficacy of using performing arts methods as a tool for understanding social violence contingent on the extent to which they draw upon existing cultural practices?
  • How can we build upon or augment existing performance customs to examine how SGBV is understood in the local context? How can arts-based methodologies bring out the nuances and subtleties of settings that are specific and universal?

Different Forms of Performance/ Different Types of Knowledge

  • Do different modalities of performance elicit different understandings of SGBV and experiences of women? How are these different dimensions, hierarchies and dynamics underpinned and more meaningfully engaged with through performance? 
  • How might the affective quality of a performance impact upon how it can be used as a method of understanding SGBV? 
  • Do different emotional registers invite different levels of engagement with SGBV?

Levels of Participation

  • Does the extent to which the participants perceive themselves to be participating in the performance impact upon what they take away from the event and upon their understanding of SGBV, and violence more generally? How does this differ between men and women? 
  • How do we invite participants to engage with performing arts? Are participants (co)creating an artwork, invited to read a performance, or using performing arts tools to communicate their own response to an artwork, for example?
  • Can creative approaches be employed at multiple stages of the fieldwork, for example, could performing arts techniques also be used in follow-up focus group discussions and interviews?

Space for Ambiguity and Improvisation

  • How might the performing arts be utilized as a tool less for delivering messages and more for exploring dilemmas and challenges?
  • As researchers, how might we work with the ambiguities that arise in a performing arts project, rather than trying to mitigate against them? How can we use and recognise  improvisation as part of research practice (i.e., allowing for information and discussion to flow freely and base activities around these as and when they emerge, as opposed to a pre-set agenda). 

Practical engagement

The second part of the project involved practical engagement in the Global South, specifically, in Sierra Leone (June—July, November 2021) and in South Africa (November 2021). These activities were conducted by the UK and Sierra Leone Co-Investigators and Research Associate in Sierra Leone, and by the South African Co-Investigator in South Africa. 

Sierra Leone

Our in-country Co-Investigators and local partners in Sierra Leone identified communities and artistic collaborators for a series of workshops using theatre, comedy and dance, conducted over six weeks. These were accompanied by interviews, focus groups and further interviews conducted by local researchers. Co-Investigator Dr Laura Martin and Research Assistant Helen Shutt went to Sierra Leone between May and July 2021. Working alongside Sierra Leonean Co-Investigator Dr Aisha Ibrahim, two paralegals from the project partner organization, Timap for Justice, and local actors and comedians, the team organized six workshops in three communities in rural communities in Northern Sierra Leone, where Dr Martin had previously conducted research and was familiar. The team held two workshops in each of the three communities (i.e. six workshops in total) using two of three arts-based methods, namely theatre, dance and comedy in each one to discuss common issues related to sexual and gender-based violence.  For the theatre and comedy workshops, we used a combination of local actors and comedians and staff from Timap for Justice for the performances.  The dance workshops employed traditional dancers known as Sampas, who were already in each community.  Focus group discussions followed each workshop with questions related to the topics at hand. The first performance drew from common issues identified by Timap staff and local actors; the second workshop drew from the first focus group discussions in each of the respective communities. After the six workshops were completed, Dr Martin returned to the communities with the paralegals to conduct further interviews based on the themes that emerged and to obtain further information about women’s experiences of the performing arts mechanisms utilised, alongside experiences of SGBV.

South Africa

For the South Africa component of the research, none of the UK researchers was able to travel and work in country owing to COVID restrictions. Instead, the South African Co-Investigator, Dr Marie-Heléen Coetzee, conducted a series of workshops in Phomolong, Saulsville and Tshepo Section, informal settlements in Thembisa, and in urban areas, such as Atteridgeville, South Africa, using performing arts methods open up conversations about the perceived causes of violence against women, in particular, in relation to cisgender, heterosexual partnerships. This approach further assisted the team to learn about the ways in which masculinity and femininity are relationally performed in everyday life and how these gender performances are shaped by socio-cultural narratives.  

In both settings, the researchers collaborated with local comedians, dancers and theatre performers, and the locations provided case studies for scoping the area in the Global South.

Research engagement and development

The findings from the practical engagement in Sierra Leone and South Africa informed two online symposia, one on Performing Arts as Research Methods (November 12, 2021) and another on SGBV (November 26, 2021) respectively. These symposia engaged a significant group of researchers and practitioners working across the two broad areas of performing arts based methods and SGBV. Over the course of our two symposia, we engaged with researchers who had used arts-based methods in a range of international contexts, including Rwanda, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Ghana, Kenya, Uganda, Nepal, Chad, Kyrgyzstan, India, Colombia, Morocco, Brazil and the West Indies. This helped us to compare approaches and notes in contrast to both the scoping exercise and our own fieldwork.

Defining the Research Area or Challenge

Performing arts are both global and local and it is, therefore, critical to assess the benefits and limitations of using the performing arts to engage with discussions about SGBV as a particular form of social violence. It is also key to examine the extent to which the cultural specificities of social violence map on to its prevalence as a global phenomenon and the extent to which the nuances and variable dimensions of how violence is understood and addressed is similar and different across cultures. While these questions were explored primarily in Sierra Leone and South Africa, the scoping work recommends new research in different contexts in both the Global North and South. 

The project speaks to the UKRI priority of creating positive social and cultural impact, and it relates directly to  UN Sustainable Development Goals 5 (Gender Equality), 10 (Reduced Inequality) and 16 (Peace, Justice, and Strong Institutions), and indirectly to numerous other UNSDGs. SGBV can be characterised as a continuum of challenges, ranging from difficult areas where progress is possible (e.g. a certain amount of ‘transformation’, often in relation to specific issues in specific communities) to the seemingly intractable (e.g. embedded forms of masculinity, especially among older populations; pervasive poverty as a barrier to accessing education and justice). Given the established research agenda around performance-based methods indicated above, critical reflection is urgently needed to shift the practice of these methods from the short-term interventionist nature of current funded research to longer-term more embedded practices that can demonstrate its real benefits. The challenges of SGBV manifest in different ways but there is considerable commonality between underlying drivers of SGBV in different parts of the world, conceptualizations of SGBV, as well as attempts to address it. Although the performing arts have been used to engage many issues in the Global South, there is no detailed knowledge of the current level and breadth of research into the performing arts related to SGBV, and little understanding of how this approach might provide space for conversations about social violence more broadly.

Recommendations for future work

New research questions 

  • How can performing arts methods create spaces to explore social violence within the lived experience of communities? 
  • To what extent can communities harness indigenous/local modes of performance (e.g. song, dance, story-telling) to create spaces for the examination of community-level experiences of SGBV, its conceptualizations and its consequences?
  • To what extent are these performing arts methods gendered and can they retrieve more substantive insights than other methods can?
  • How far is the use of technology, via social media, evident in changing the modes and instantiations of SGBV in different communities?
  • What is the relation of particular performed masculinities and femininities in producing cultures of SGBV? How do they differ and what are the consequences?
  • What is the relation of local sex cultures to the perception and performance of SGBV within communities (family structures, institutions, subcultures, genders)?
  • What is the role of pornography and the modes of producing pornographic content, disseminating, sharing and using it in the modes and types of SGBV? Does it have added value in the discussions of female pleasure, and what is the relationship between pleasure and violence? 
  • To what extent and how do discourses of sex as violence inform and help to shape the behaviours of abusers and survivors?
  • How do local systems and practices for managing the outcomes of SGBV in particular societies (e.g. ‘compromise’, marriage, compensatory justice) mitigate or exacerbate the prevalence of SGBV? 
  • How can we think about meaningful comparisons about SGBV in both Global North and Global South countries?  What lessons can be taken from the Global South to aid Global North countries in addressing SGBV?

What Arts and Humanities Research offer Studies on SGBV

The interdisciplinary exploration of performance and perception of SGBV through arts-based methods is key to pursuing new research. Thinking through the multiple and intersecting dimensions at play in analysing SGBV requires collaboration between psychological, anthropological, performance and gender researchers on the one hand and political and legal sectors on the other. 

Social sciences tends to examine social, political and economic implications of violence against women often missing the nuances revealed by our project. These nuances include exploring what constitutes violence (and its diversity and gendered nature) and contextually specific rationales for accessing different avenues of justice. Social science methods do not necessarily generate the iterative process embedded in humanities research that surfaces these complexities and are often much more amenable to co-production between people from different positions. Further, existing studies across the humanities and social sciences often focus on local projects in individual communities or countries. The scoping project has shown that there are considerable benefits for researchers working in these contexts to collaborate to develop a body of evidence linking a range of different contexts in order to explore the simultaneous and different challenges at play. 

Scholars have noted that UK-based academics acknowledge the contingencies of our own positions (themselves not homogeneous) as Western researchers and the potential for tension between our own liberal beliefs and the complex understandings of gender power dynamics locally. This tension can carry through into events themselves, where the desire for a genuinely dialogic exchange and multiplicity of views may conflict with the ideologies of the research team and NGO workers. Moreover, development bodies make use of arts-based methods to communicate messages (e.g. using drama to present legal information). However, they do not use them as a tool or starting point to actually obtain information where they might (e.g. using comedy to begin a discussion about violence, or inviting local communities to share their own jokes, songs or other cultural practices in relation to violence or another social challenge). In other words, communities may be sensitized to certain issues (e.g. by being talked to about them), thus limiting the engagement and preventing a lasting or more substantial effect on social relations. A risk of ‘sensitization’ is that it works at a surface level; that is, people are certainly aware and know to perform their 'roles’ as development subjects during activities with NGOs and researchers, but without necessarily seeing or understanding the potential benefits or pathways to enduring impact (not to mention the many structural impediments prohibiting these possibilities, as discussed in the forthcoming article in Third World Quarterly). 

As methods, performing arts are used to open up a discussion and to understand rather than to ‘intervene’ or ‘transform’ per se, or work in a linear, telic fashion towards an ‘end’. As per the avoidance of working towards a specific intended outcome, using a playful mode – like humour or improvisation – to open up conversation proleptically implies that understanding of the situation is already, and necessarily, incomplete.  Performing arts are very well suited to producing the small ‘somethings’, or ‘apertures of possibility’ – often unanticipated by practitioners – that arise in moments of theatrical engagement and can be the start of much longer, much more in-depth research.

Key Potential Outputs and Outcomes 

Significantly expanding the research domain will afford as outputs, policy reports and recommendations. Their potential outcomes include new laws to shape and influence international action on SGBV, used to lobby the UN or other major international institutions to galvanise action. Expanded research capacity to innovate and embed methods at all stages of the research process in interdisciplinary projects that span the Global North and South will generate outputs such as community co-produced comic books, stand-up shows, song and dance performances about SGBV. For example, nuanced cultural and emotional understanding of the deep relationship between exposure to pornography and perceptions of sex and the dimensions of violence associated with pornography might inform the development of sex education tools and materials. Other outcomes include research impact via knowledge exchange among Global South researchers and NGOs and UK-based researchers in the Global North; and co-devised and produced innovations in NGO outreach. 

The research will produce bodies of evidence on the different specific and locally situated socio-economic and cultural drivers of SGBV in particular settings within the Global North and Global South that will feed into new research and spur new collaborations. They will evidence the ways in which the drivers identified in the Global South compare with those drivers identified of SGBV in the Global North and the extent to which they can be shared across different contexts.

Key Potential Beneficiaries and benefits 

The research ultimately aims to benefit the huge numbers of girls and women at risk of violence. Globally, one woman in three is subjected to physical or sexual violence by an intimate partner or sexual violence from a non-partner; this figure has remained largely unchanged over the past decade. It is well established that mitigating direct physical risk to girls and women increases the chances of other potential benefits, such as education, social cohesion, individual and collective prosperity, and navigating social, legal and political structures.

Expanding the research area will demonstrate the social benefits of understanding the uses of humanities-led methods to illuminate the lived experiences of the communities impacted by SGBV for sectors outside academia. Potential beneficiaries include social services organisations engaged in protection and safeguarding children and women; charities and NGOs serving survivors; justice systems and law enforcement organisations. 

Required Intervention 

  • A funded series of workshops conducted as part of networks of researchers to engage people with expertise from both the Global North and Global South to build research collaborations that will meet the challenges of conducting interdisciplinary longitudinal research across the Global North and South. Future collaboration could combine existing teams across (much) larger geographical areas (e.g. connecting research in South America, Africa and the Global North).

Research on SGBV across the Global South and North must collect and encompass hitherto separate or complementary critical cultural contexts, including attention to

  • the wider community context in which SGBV takes place (including enablers, sponsors, abusers, perpetrators as well as survivors); 
  • local community systems of punishment and justice as well as formal state systems; 
  • performance of traditional marriage customs as well as uses of novel or global attitudes, behaviours and practices; 

Existing forms of expression (e.g. music, song, comedy, dance) and performance of attitudes towards SBV (e.g. discourses of masculinity and femininity, construction of women’s resilience and ability to bear violence); the place of SBV relative to recognised norms of practice around sex and intimacy. 

  • Effective approaches depend upon multi- and interdisciplinary expertise beyond the fields of international relations, anthropology and politics to rely upon the engagement of the arts and humanities. Social sciences paradigms (surveys, focus groups, interviews) are of limited value in supporting the enabling capacity for arts-based methods for discovery/exploration of contexts, drivers and cultures in which SGV prevails. 
  • Co-production of research. Priority needs to be to develop research capacity in communities by funding international PhDs and post-doctoral researchers, international Co-Is. Projects should be required to train community researchers, understand existing cultural practices in shaping research and encourage the use and reproduction of local and indigenous knowledge. Incorporate knowledge exchange. 
  • Longitudinal engagement (rather than one-off interventions) Projects up to 5 years with provision for extensive fieldwork that enable interdisciplinary teams to pursue major questions over a sufficient time through appropriate methodologies. This kind of project should incorporate exchange arrangements to enable international researchers to spend time in the UK context. 

Funding Calls and award structures

We recommend a major funding programme that explicitly calls for interdisciplinary approaches, grounded in arts and humanities-led methods. Funding calls should include consideration of the following:

  • Projects for up to 5 years in duration that enable interdisciplinary teams to pursue major questions over a sufficient time through appropriate methodologies. 
  • Large grants to facilitate international teams-based collaboration between researchers and non-academic partners. Research teams that include local partners (NGOs, community organisations, etc.), with capacity for international knowledge exchange and training; champion co-production and comparative research across different settings (e.g. countries in the Global North and Global South respectively). 
  • Funding bids invited under major thematic headings (e.g. masculinities, the multiple and intersectional forms of physical and emotional violence, pornography, advocacy, etc.). 
  • An open approach inviting bids from around the general area of arts-based and feminist approaches to SGBV (which might indicate possible thematic approaches) to maximise innovative, comparative collaboration. 
  • For reasons of research quality, continuity and sustainability of outcomes, as well as casualization debates, funding should facilitate stable contractual arrangements for team members not already on open-ended contracts (e.g. full-time PhD, RA or other posts over 12+ months rather than very short-term or low FTE roles).

We gratefully acknowledge the contributions of researchers and practitioners, including Dr Lucy Evans, Dr Sonjah Stanley-Niaah, Dr Gabrielle Hosein, Professor Johanna Stiebert, Dr Polly Wilding, Dr Cristina Fernandes (also known by her artistic name, Kelly di Bertolli), Professor Cathy McIlwaine, Professor Paul Heritage, Dr Mark Johnson, Dr Nanette De Jong, Jongisilo Pokwana Ka Menziwa, Professor Tamsin Bradley, Huda Ghalegolabi, Dr Mukdarut Bangpan, Dr Heather Flowe, Professor Jeremy Marc Allouche, Professor André Yoka Lye Mudaba, Professor Oliver Richmond, Dr Nicolas Salazar Sutil, Taigue Ahmed, Dr Hazel Marsh, Professor Laura Jeffrey, Dr Goya Irene Wilson Vasquez, Professor Ananda Breed, Dr Eric Ndushabandi Nsanzubuhoro, Dr Rajib Timalsina, Professor Kate Pahl, Dr Helen Turton, Dr Seth Mehl, Professor Patricia Cowell, David April, Dr Nkululeko Sibanda, Dr Philipp Schulz