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Picture this – street art in Nepal displays powerful messages for women and girls

Dr Charlotta Salmi

Senior Lecturer in Postcolonial and Global Literature

Street art, murals and graffiti can be seen all over urban areas in Nepal. Researchers Charlotta Salmi and Barbara Grossman-Thompson have considered how activists and agencies in Nepal use these media to raise awareness of gender-based violence (GBV) in the country. How can organisations work to create inclusive, effective, and culturally sensitive messaging around GBV awareness?

Mural in Nepal showing a girl and a boy in a set of scales. They are equal.

Gender-based violence in Nepal

The UN has set a number of sustainable development goals that they hope to see met by 2030. UN 2030 Development Goal 5 is: “Achieving gender equality and empowering all women and girls”. As the UN admits, the world is not on track to meet this goal. Indeed, they suggest that “... progress on gender equality has not only failed to move forward but has begun to reverse. Around the world, a growing backlash against women’s rights is threatening even well-established freedoms and protections.”

GBV is persistent around the world, but the problem is particularly acute in Nepal. According to the World Health Organisation, more than one in four women in Nepal experience intimate partner violence in their lifetime, with rural and uneducated women and those from the poorest households facing significantly higher risk. It is estimated that only one-third of women who experience physical or sexual violence seek help. As well as partner violence, trafficking and street harassment, women and girls in Nepal experience systemic menstruation-based discrimination (chaupadi).

In 2012, Nepal’s National Planning Commission described the impacts of GBV as “deficits in power and voice”. Dr Salmi’s project aims to challenge these deficits by examining how individuals, activists and organisations use street art for awareness raising and education, and how it is experienced by different audiences.

Street art as a medium for education and communication

More than 40 per cent of women and girls in Nepal are unable to read, so visual means of communication allow them to receive information that would not otherwise be available to them. Street art, murals and graffiti are popular in Nepal’s urban areas and many agencies including the  Ujyalo Foundation  and Oxfam have used street art as part of social justice and information campaigns.

Dr Salmi and her collaborators set out to examine how effective existing street art is as a medium, how it represents GBV, and how audiences respond to it.

The project has four principal aims:

  • to improve understanding of how aesthetic representations challenge or create assumptions about GBV.
  • to facilitate knowledge exchange between academic researchers, government agencies, arts collectives and NGOs about representational practices (aesthetic strategies, cultural history, heritage).
  • to encourage women and girls to participate in the production of anti-GBV materials through creative initiatives.
  • to develop strategies for producing inclusive, effective, and culturally sensitive messaging in GBV awareness campaigns

(From the Visualising Gender-Based Violence website)

Girls painting a mural

Who is using street art and how?

While street art is often part of counterculture in other countries, in Nepal it is government-sanctioned and frequently government-funded. International agencies and donors in Nepal fund projects using street art, but they sometimes lack knowledge of the cultural, religious and social landscape of the country and its regions. They may not fully understand how visual imagery signifies to Nepalese audiences. Dr Salmi and Dr Grossman-Thompson’s research may help them to create more appropriate, powerful and significant street art that better spreads their messages.

How was the research conducted?

Dr Salmi and her colleagues interviewed a wide variety of stakeholders including donors, organisations, activists, artists and advocacy groups.

They also ran workshops with girls in government schools in Kathmandu and Pokhara. In the workshops, among other exercises, students (aged 12–17) looked at images of street art on women’s rights and then narrated their interpretations.

Mura depicting a girl and her mother - Nepal

What did the researchers learn?

With the knowledge gained from the research project, Dr Salmi’s team are in a position to help donors and activists produce street art that is co-created and more culturally sensitive. This will help to create more effective messaging. In ongoing research practice, the team is workshopping messages and then teaching street art techniques to girls and young women so that they can produce the art that resonates with them.

This inclusive practice will improve the way street art is used not just in Nepal, but globally. Activists can use these techniques to develop powerful visual messaging to educate on these crucial issues.

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