The Global Urbanist

News and analysis of cities around the world

Sistren Theatre Collective: bringing street violence into the spotlight

As part of our series on eliminating violence against women and girls in our cities produced in collaboration with the Huairou Commission, Pamela Ransom examines the work of the Sistren Theatre Collective, which uses street-based theatre to encourage communities to discuss the safety of their streets, as well as conducting safety audits with other grassroots organisations.

Pamela Ransom

Pamela Ransom

Cities: Kingston

Topics: Walking and cycling, Private sector governance, Crime and security, Community organisation, Gender, Arts and culture

Like other parts of the Caribbean, Jamaica has traditionally paid little attention to gender-based violence.  Women have been deemed "the battlefield on which turf wars between men may be enacted", and endure a pervasive "culture of violence among the poor and struggling" that is now well-entrenched. Problems abound not only in the rough-and-tumble inner-city communities of Kingston, May Pen, Spanish Town or Montego Bay but also in quieter communities in the lush, rural parishes.

Crime and insecurity stem from a host of factors, including the country's history of widespread poverty, combined with newer influences of drugs and gangs.  Tensions between political parties still play some role along with undue influence of local strong men or "dons". There is a spiral of revenge and reprisal in many areas, fueled by police disempowerment demonstrated by the fact that arrests are made in less than half of the nation's homicides. Women are reluctant to come forward to report instances of rape because of lack of government response, despite a new Domestic Violence Act in 2004 providing for court-ordered protection of female victims of domestic violence, giving police new tools and imposing stronger financial penalties for violations. And although unemployment in the country has declined steadily from 27.2% in 1980 to 14.1% in 2012, it still impacts women disproportionately, affecting 18.3% of women compared to 10.5% of men.

One women in the audience discussion said she understood the mother's initial cry for revenge because she had "similar feelings towards the killer of her son" and the performance helped her realise that harming the killer could cause a cycle of killing.

But as in so many other parts of the world, violence against women recently climbed to the top of the national agenda. A spike in female homicide of 37%in 2012, and a series of highly publicised brutal attacks on women in St James, Trelawny, Kingston and Clarendon led to major protests, followed by stakeholder meetings and youth forums focused on breaking the culture of silence. The Prime Minister, Portia Simpson, launched a plan of action to address the issue,  and eventually pledged to sign the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) by 8 March 2013, with a pledge to aggressively implement a national policy for gender equality designed by the Bureau of Women's Affairs and Gender Advisory Committee. This policy includes provisions on women's safety including commitments to enact a national anti sexual harassment policy and a call for the Ministry of National Security to design a comprehensive crime plan to include strategies on gender-based violence.

A call to action

One women's group that has grown over the last thirty years in response to these issues is the Sistren Theatre Collective, launched in 1977 with the aim of using popular theatre as an educational tool to increase gender awareness. The group formed from efforts to revitalise troubled schools, bringing together women employed by the government's Social Impact Program to do a variety of menial tasks. The organization's plays and workshops help focus attention on the challenges of violence and its impact on women.   The collective has been a tool for empowerment, helping women voice their own narratives and advocate for social change through a long series of award winning performances presented not only throughout Jamaica, but on the world stage.  The workshops integrate drama with strategies including dance, songs and personal testimony and address the interplay between violence and issues such as teenage parenting, HIV/AIDS, and migration that impact women's lives.

The last full-length performances by the group on the impact of violence on women came in 2009. "Lady Chance and the Butterfly Dance" was performed across several inner-city communities while "A Slice of Reality on the Ground" told the story of the psychiatric problems of women who bear children after multiple rapes. This performance was held before a Jamaican parliamentary committee considering stronger abortion legislation.

Since then, the group has shifted its focus towards street performances in communities nationwide, which are a powerful tool for community engagement. Street-based theatre is both an alternative to consumer-oriented mass media and a strategy for empowering many who remain marginalised. The process involves going to street corners or hosting short performances and discussions in schools or local businesses. The dramatic skits, which can attract up to 500 people, highlight critical social issues, and audiences are engaged with discussions following the performance.  The informal street corner venues enable messages to reach a wide cross-section of the population. The performances necessitate careful planning about small details such as timing and weather, since Jamaica's tropical climate lends itself to unexpected rain, and the target audience is often single parents with little time free from household duties.

Other discussions lead to a community identifying specific problems. For example, community participants might identify issues such as deplorable roads, lack of proper street lighting or outside bathrooms that have impacts on safety because they provide conditions for continued harassment.

Bringing the meaning of violence to life

One recent Sistren Theatre Collective performance addressed women and gang violence. The goal was to increase knowledge about risks of supporting gang violence and to explore ways to end the problem. The performance recreated the scene of a typical community experiencing gang violence to solicit audience input on how women are affected, but also on how their actions sometimes fuel further violence.

The skit was performed in various communities  including Clarendon and Portmore, attracting an audience of over 100 people. The street corner audiences reacted enthusiastically, liking the skit because it was "dealing with issues they are familiar with" and are "now facing". Scenes with the most profound impact included a lady crying over the death of her son whose desire for revenge scared others away when later another community member was killed. One women in the audience discussion said she understood the mother's initial cry for revenge because she had "similar feelings towards the killer of her son" and the performance helped her realise that harming the killer could cause a cycle of killing.

Questions by Sistren staff help the audience explore the deeper issues underlying causes of violence, including lack of respect between genders, high youth unemployment, lack of unity and bad living conditions. They also help community members identify solutions such as  improved understanding of parenting or traditional values. Provocative questions are posed such as: if they had a boyfriend who was involved in criminal activities, what would they do? One women responded that she would wait until things were "out of hand before she would leave him," while another said she would talk to him, and if things didn't change she would leave because she doesn't want any man to put her life at risk.  

Sometimes this leads to long term community engagement through a process the group calls "corner reasoning". Sistren staff work with street corner groups for continued periods up to two years in a project called "Tek It To Them & Rise Up" funded by the UN Trust Fund.  In some cases, the focus is on men, with the goal to change behavior destructive to women. This sometimes leads to important spin offs including community designed strategies for mentoring boys to increase their sensitivity or ensuring boys continue school to avoid aggressive behavior.

Other discussions lead to a community identifying specific problems. For example, community participants might identify issues such as deplorable roads, lack of proper street lighting or outside bathrooms that have impacts on safety because they provide conditions for  continued harassment.  In other instances, audiences are sometimes afraid to talk about crime and violence, making comments such as "mi nuh live here suh mi can talk fi di community" ("I don't live here so I can't talk for the community") or "I'm just here to look, I have nothing to say." At other times performance team members are approached later, after a performance ends, when community members admit that they not did say anything in a street corner group discussion because they are afraid gun men will retaliate or kill them.

At their best, performances lead to changes such as a resolve for more unity or resolutions for people to talk to at least one person on the wrong path. At other times the community focuses on government response or creates its own support group. They also sometimes seek assistance from Sistren to help with formation and running of these groups. This has led to spin off groups such as the Hannah Town and Rockfort Cultural Groups formed in 2002 and 2009 through the Citizen's Security and Justice Programme initiative to build safer communities.

Pioneering safety audits in Jamaica

Another powerful strategy of the collective involved collaborating with other grassroots women's groups to help launch GROOTS Jamaica, a network responsible for introducing women's safety audits to the national landscape. This innovative strategy, developed by Huairou Commission member network Women in Cities International, is used in countries across the globe. The safety audit includes steps such as educating and training women, organising groups, mapping safety concerns, and analysing results, including ways to make changes to address women's concerns. This approach started with training 80 Jamaican women in the method in late 2008.  Women in Clarendon and Portmore subsequently launched two safety audit pilot projects, along with training government authorities and law enforcement officials.  Excitement about the work led to further trainings on the safety audit tool in communities such as Torrington Park, Drewsland, Hannah Town, Fletchers Land and Trench Town. It also led to the formation of women's safety committees to ensure that people stayed engaged. The underlying philosophy is that only through grassroots participation, and greater involvement of women in community planning and governance will real change take place.

Pamela Ransom is an Associate Professor in the Masters of Public Administration program in the School of Management at Metropolitan College of New York, and has served as Deputy Director of Town Planning for the Government of Jamaica.

GROOTS Jamaica is participating in the Global Day of Action for Safer Cities today, in which they will partner with Mayor of Portmore, George Lee, Kingston-St Andrew Mayor Angella Brown Burke and Clarendon Mayor Branswell, all cities in which they have previously conducted safety audits. During this action, community leaders, police officers, church leaders, politicians and representatives from schools will come together to discuss the abuse of women and girls in society, illustrate the value of community cohesion, and work with law enforcement to enforce actions against perpetrators of violence. They will sign an agreement for concrete actions moving forward.

To learn more about women in Jamaica conducting Safety Audits, please see Community Safety through Women’s Eyes: A Jamaican Journey, a short film produced by GROOTS Jamaica grassroots leader Carmen Griffiths.