Performing Empowerment: Disability, Dance, and Inclusive Development in Post-Conflict Sri Lanka

Lead Research Organisation: University of York
Department Name: Centre for Applied Human Rights

Abstract

War inflicts lasting physical and psychological damage on many people and subsequent post-conflict development often leaves them behind. Long after the war is over, ex-combatants and civilians with conflict-related disabilities remain trapped in extreme poverty and social exclusion. One way to change this is to empower them with the confidence, knowledge, and skills to assert their socio-economic rights and to demand government services. Such "legal empowerment" is a form of rights-based development that accords with the emphasis on access to justice and inclusion in the 2015 UN Sustainable Development Goals.

This research project examines an innovative way of empowering persons with conflict-related disabilities in Sri Lanka through an unusual combination of dance and law. Although Sri Lanka's brutal, 26-year civil war ended in 2009, the country only began seriously addressing the legacies of the conflict with the election of a new president in 2015. The project is also timely given that Sri Lanka ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities this year and the country is currently debating reparations for those affected by the war.

The project consists of four main activities: (1) workshops that combine integrated dance (where disabled and able-bodied dancers perform together) and legal empowerment; (2) flash mobs and dance performances in busy, public spaces by workshop participants; (3) research on how the workshops and performances affect the agency, dignity, welfare, and inclusion of persons with conflict-related disabilities; and (4) sharing the research findings with a wide range of beneficiaries to maximize impact. The workshops and performances will take place in Batticaloa and Jaffna, two of the most conflict-affected districts in Sri Lanka.

The research component asks how combining legal empowerment with integrated dance can contribute to inclusive development for persons with disabilities in post-conflict settings. In answering that, the project addresses three gaps in current knowledge. First, there has been very little research done on legal empowerment for persons with conflict-related disabilities. Second, there is evidence that integrated dance can promote self-esteem and inclusion for persons with disabilities, but more research is needed to see whether this also applies to conflict-related disabilities and post-conflict environments. Finally, the use of participatory performing arts to achieve development goals is under-studied.

The research team consists of a new, interdisciplinary collaboration among scholar-practitioners in dance and human rights. The team will work closely with two project partners: a German non-profit association that has already piloted workshops and performances in Sri Lanka; and a Sri Lankan church that provides services to persons with disabilities and other marginalized persons in those two districts. The research will be conducted and disseminated with the help of two Sri Lankan collaborators: the Fine Arts Department at Eastern University of Sri Lanka and the Law Department at the University of Peradeniya. The project will also build capacity in these departments so they can continue the workshops and research after this specific project ends.

The research will produce an evidence-base on linking legal empowerment with participatory performance to reduce extreme poverty and social exclusion for persons with conflict-related disabilities after conflict. The impact is to inform policymakers, practitioners, and donors on how to scale up such development interventions in Sri Lanka and similar post-conflict states like Myanmar and Nepal.

Planned Impact

Persons with conflict-related disabilities will benefit from this research in several ways. First, their participation in the workshops and co-production of the research will ensure that the project meets their needs for empowerment. This is particularly the case with the follow-up workshops where they will be given a large role to determine structure and content. Second, the dance performances (which are both research outputs and objects of research) play an integral role in impact. For disabled participants, performing and 'making abilities visible' helps them to develop confidence, autonomy, and self-esteem, and to overcome potential insecurities about being seen/looked at. Third, the preliminary research findings will inform the follow-up workshops and performances, thereby ensuring those have more impact for participants. Fourth, the final research findings will be incorporated into a practitioners toolkit that will help the local partners and other civil society organizations combine integrated dance and legal empowerment more effectively. Fifth, the research aims to drive the empowerment of persons with conflict-related disabilities higher up the policy agenda.

The families and communities of persons with conflict-related disabilities will also benefit from this research. The public dance performances will directly impact on family and community perceptions of disability, disrupting assumptions about what disabled people are capable of. In addition, media coverage and documentary videos of these performances will reach a wider audience in Sri Lanka. Targeted emails will be sent to disability advocates, service providers, and media outlets in Sri Lanka to make them aware that these videos are freely downloadable on the project website. To reach those without internet access, the project will find funding for dance students from Eastern University to do mobile screenings of the videos in poor, rural communities in the north and east of the country.

Government officials and civil society organizations will benefit from the research by gaining greater awareness of the capabilities and rights of persons with conflict-related disabilities. Some local officials and local staff will directly benefit by being invited to participate in the legal empowerment sessions of the workshops and to attend the public dance performances. Others will benefit from attending the one-day conference in Colombo in January 2018 to discuss the preliminary research findings, the draft policy paper, and the draft practitioner guide. More will benefit from the resources on the project website (the policy briefing, practitioner toolkit, blogs, and videos).

Development actors may be persuaded to do more legal empowerment for persons with conflict-related disabilities if presented with a stronger evidence base from this research project. They will be made aware of the research findings through: project conferences in Colombo (January 2018) and York (April 2018); networking with development actors (ActionAid, International Service, Namati) that have close links with the Centre for Applied Human Rights; presentations at development studies conferences in Sri Lanka and the UK; and the resources on the project website (particularly the practitioner toolkit and policy briefing).

Finally, the research outputs may encourage more integrated dance practice in Sri Lanka, where dance plays an important cultural role. The performances will also have an impact within the dance communities in Sri Lanka, the UK, and Germany both through the work of the dancers and choreographers involved in this project but also through the videos of dance performances on the project website.

Publications

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Related Projects

Project Reference Relationship Related To Start End Award Value
AH/P008178/1 01/11/2016 31/08/2017 £80,153
AH/P008178/2 Transfer AH/P008178/1 01/09/2017 15/09/2018 £38,946
 
Description This project found that participation in workshops which combine mixed-abled dance and human rights education led to greater legal empowerment for people with disabilities. We focused in particular on the progress of people who became disabled as a result of the war. Participants reported increased self-esteem and confidence and took active steps to exercise their rights after the initial workshops by claiming benefits, challenging unfair decisions and registering complaints with authorities and public services. They attributed this shift in attitude to the experience of the workshops and the research team observed notable changes in their confidence, leadership skills and human rights knowledge.
Through analysis of the workshop activities and observation and interview data, we discovered that dance can develop the capabilities required for legal empowerment, such as self-esteem, confidence, trust, autonomy and working with others. We further noted how 'embodied learning' through dance can be a powerful tool for human rights education.
The research also found that performance can potentially be a powerful tool for challenging public perceptions of people with disabilities. Preliminary audience research at the public performances recorded notable changes in the way that members of the public thought about the capabilities of people with disabilities and thought about their role within Sri Lankan society.
Exploitation Route The findings will be of use to practitioners, scholars and policy makers working in human rights, dance, community arts, development and disability studies, who wish to develop methods for enhancing the legal empowerment of people with and without disabilities.
Sectors Education,Government, Democracy and Justice,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections

 
Description This project has helped promote the empowerment and inclusion of persons with disabilities (consistent with SDG 10.2) in Sri Lanka, which is a Lower Middle Income Country. The workshops run as part of this award have led to direct social and economic impact. Some of the research participants gained further state support as a direct result of the skills and knowledge gained through the workshops. Furthermore, some audience members at the public performances and workshop participants without disabilities noted changes in their thinking about the potential and role of people with disabilities. Since the workshops, some participants have used the skills and information learned through the workshops to create performances addressing social and human rights issues within their communities. The findings have informed the development of a practitioner toolkit, which will be disseminated to arts, human rights and disability practitioners in Sri Lanka and further afield. This toolkit is intended to support further work in the area of mixed-abled dance and human rights education, leading to wider and longer-lasting impact. Changes in opinion were also noted at the roundtable event that the team hosted in Colombo in January. Attendees articulated an increased interest in the potential of combining dance and human rights education to develop legal empowerment. As a result of the roundtable, the research team and VisAbility were invited by the British Council to submit two bids for further funding. The research team was successful in its bid and we are waiting to hear the final outcome of VisAbility's bid. The capacity of VisAbility has increased as a result of the project. They have received further funding and have developed a wider network of policy makers, practitioners and scholars. These opportunities have led the organization to develop another programme of activities in Sri Lanka, focusing on further training participants in delivering workshops in order to make the project more sustainable. The research team has also helped influence the evolution of VisAbility's practice.
First Year Of Impact 2017
Sector Education,Government, Democracy and Justice,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections
Impact Types Cultural,Societal,Economic

 
Description Arts for Development/Disability Arts
Amount £12,040 (GBP)
Organisation British Council 
Sector Charity/Non Profit
Country United Kingdom
Start 04/2018 
End 03/2019
 
Description A panel on disability and the arts (Batticaloa) 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Undergraduate students
Results and Impact Lars Waldorf organized a panel on disability rights and the arts as part of a 2-day conference on intangible cultural heritage at the Swami Vipulananda Institute (Batticaloa). The panel consisted of artists, researchers, and rights activists mostly drawn from Batticaloa.VisAbility members and Lars Waldorf also did a presentation about the Performing Empowerment project. June 2017
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
 
Description Dance performance (Jaffna town) 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact The December 2017 dance/rights workshop in Jaffna culminated with a dance performance in a central market in Jaffna town. There were about 120 passersby and shopkeepers who saw all or part of the performance. We didn't have sufficient interpreters to do audience interviews but did do follow-up interviews with some of the disabled performers.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
 
Description Dance performance (Swami Vipulananda Institute) 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Undergraduate students
Results and Impact The participant coaching in Batticaloa in July culminated with a dance performance for some 200 students and faculty of the Swami Vipulananda Institute for Aesthetic Studies in Batticaloa on 23 July 2017.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
 
Description Dance performances (Chenkallady) 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact The January 2018 dance/rights workshop in Batticaloa culminated with two dance performances in Chenkallady: one in a market area alongside the highway (with about 60 people people watching) and the other in a small village (with about 100 villagers as the audience). We did some post-performance audience interviews in the market location but this wasn't possible in the village for logistical reasons.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
 
Description Dance performances (Jaffna town) 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact The dance/rights workshops in Jaffna culminated in 2 outdoor performances in Old Park on 15 July 2017. The audience consisted of members of the general public (people in the park and passersby on the main road) plus students and teachers from the Nuffield School for the Deaf and Blind plus invited members of the press and civil society organizations. We conducted some post-performance audience surveys.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
 
Description Dance performances (Kallady Beach & Chenkallady) 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact The dance/rights workshops in Batticaloa culminated in 2 outdoor performances on 2 July 2017: one on Kallady beach and the other in a roadside marketplace in Kallady. The audience consisted of members of the general public plus invited members of the press. We conducted some post-performance audience surveys.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
 
Description Invited presentation (University of Melbourne) 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Postgraduate students
Results and Impact Lars Waldorf gave a presentation on "Performative Reparations: Dance, Disability and Transitional Justice in Post-War Sri Lanka" as part of the Melbourne Conflict, Development and Justice Research Cluster Series and also talked to a group of PhD students beforehand about the fieldwork and methodology for this project. August 2017
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
 
Description Presentation (Colombo) 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Third sector organisations
Results and Impact Lars Waldorf gave a presentation on transitional justice, legal empowerment, and culture that discussed VisAbility's dance and rights-awareness workshops as part of a conference on "Comparative Peacebuilding in Asia." July 2017
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
 
Description Presentation (Dundee) 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Postgraduate students
Results and Impact Lars Waldorf gave a presentation on "Performative Reparations? Dance and War-Related Disabilities in Sri Lanka" as part of Dundee Law School's seminar series and Dr. Fiona Kumari Campell and Dr. Susan Levy, both from Dundee's School of Education and Social Work, acted as discussants. November 2017
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
 
Description Roundtable Discussion (Colombo) 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Third sector organisations
Results and Impact VisAbility and the research team gave short presentations on our activities and preliminary findings to an audience consisting mainly of dance practitioners, disability rights activists, and donors. This was followed by a Q&A session and subsequent networking (during which representatives of the British Council in Sri Lanka invited us to apply for an upcoming call for Arts for Development). January 2018
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018