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Central Asian 55+ Womens’ Theater Group Promotes Inter-Generational Dialogue on Violence Against Women

Around the world, victim-blaming remains a powerful barrier that prevents girls and women from reporting sexual assault and seeking help.  Victim-blaming, including questioning the victim’s moral character, family upbringing, or fashion choices is often a reflection of broader societal views on gender and the accepted position of girls and women in the community.  In Kyrgyzstan Central Asia, an innovative group of amateur 55+ actors are using drama to promote inter-generational discussions on this socially sensitive topic with astonishing success.

Kyrgyzstan has a proud history of nomadic hospitality and close-knit family networks.  While these traditions can potentially provide a system of support for victims of violence; pervasive patriarchal norms, fear of bringing shame to the family and rigid ideas about the role of girls and women in the family and in society often converge to silence victims or subvert their path towards justice.

For more than 20 years, Sezim Crisis Center has been working to protect the rights of women and provide legal and psycho-social assistance to girls and women affected by violence.  In 2019 Sezim organized the “55+ Club” – for women of retirement age.  The goal of the club is to improve the quality of life for participants by reducing social isolation, connecting those who are vulnerable to family violence with legal and psycho-social support, and providing counseling and life skills coaching to enhance their sense of dignity and self-agency.

Over the course of the Club’s first six months, an unexpected transformation occurred.  Within the safe space of friendship and camaraderie that the Club provided, women began sharing both the joys and sorrows of their lives including their experiences with family conflict and violence.  With support from their peers, the women began to see themselves not as elderly women existing on the periphery of society, but as a collective body with the wisdom and experience to speak authoritatively on the issue of violence against women.  During this year’s Global Campaign on 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence – Sezim’s 55+ Club got their chance.

Sezim’s staff trained Club members to use theater as a tool for social activism.  Club members wrote a script depicting the family conflict that unfolds when a 16-year old daughter reveals she has been raped.  The skit focused on the dynamics of victim-blaming that typically emerge in inter-generational households where notions of family honor and traditional gender norms hold sway.  At the end of the scene, the young girl’s family acquiesces and she registers her case with the local police.

During the 16 Days Campaign, Sezim’s 55+ Club performed the skit for numerous university audiences in the capital city of Bishkek, including the Academy of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, which is responsible for training the nation’s future law enforcement officers.  Following each performance, Sezim’s professional team of psychologists and lawyers engaged students and elder performers in a spirited discussion on topics ranging from social norms that reinforce gender stereotypes to the rights and legal protections afforded victims of sexual assault under Kyrgyz law.  For all participants, it was the first time the taboo topic of rape, was openly discussed across generations and genders.  The forum also provided a unique opportunity for young and elder participants to exchange views on the many ways societal and familial expectations on gender have shaped and constrained their lives.

Buoyed by their successful debut as an amateur theater group, Sezim’s 55+ Club members have already begun planning future events to promote inter-generational dialogue on violence against women with skits on domestic violence and bride kidnapping.  Through drama and social activism, these courageous elders have not only found their voice, but have given voice to victims of abuse.

About the Author:  Dr. Ariel Ahart is a public health specialist with 25 years of international experience in the area of reproductive and sexual with a focus on gender-based violence.  She first met Sezim’s team 15 years ago as a doctoral student conducting research on violence against women in Bishkek and continues to collaborate with them today as an international volunteer.