How stories help confront violence

During the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence, which runs from 25 November, until 10 December, the IDS research team, along with its global partners, will be engaging in a series of dialogues on the engagement of men and boys in tackling sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV). This one-off blog series offers an opportunity to openly talk about SGBV and the successes and challenges connected to addressing it. 

How stories help confront violence

Joanna Wheeler, Senior Research Associate at the Sustainable Livelihoods Foundation, explains why stories matter in addressing violence. Joanna shares with us the story of Ndoda, a young man from a township in Cape Town.
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Ndoda is a young man from a township in Cape Town. He’s smart, articulate and talented. He’s also a former gangster, drug-user and prison inmate.  

Here’s Ndoda’s story:

As a child he was abandoned by his parents and raised by his grandmother, whom he loved very much. When she died, he felt like he was out of control. He and his friends robbed, stabbed, and lived in the streets, but he tried to keep his friends from killing. While in prison, Ndoda found the space to change his direction. Ndoda now works with Sonke Gender Justice as a community activist. He stands up in front of small groups of people in the township and tries to convince them not use violence. The easy way out would be for him to go back to his old life — everyone around him is doing it. He has few other opportunities. He may still make mistakes — but he is trying to stop the violence around him, without knowing where his own story will go next.

Find out more about Ndoda

Why does Ndoda’s story matter?

The scale of violence as a social problem is well established and increasingly recognised (see for example, the recently established Global Goals For Sustainable Development). Much less clear is how to go about addressing violence, in its many forms. Currently the main response to violence is focussed on institutions: a bigger, better police force, more prisons with higher walls, tougher sentences, a stronger military, better legal frameworks. The IDS-led programme, ‘Strengthening Evidence-based Policy,’ has made an important contribution to the policy debate by considering the role of men and boys in acting collectively to interrupt sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV).

As part of this initiative, I have been working with people living with violence to use storytelling as a way to address it. By storytelling, I’m referring to an intensive, creative process of crafting personal stories through collective reflection. Through this and other related work, I have discovered some important links between the process of storytelling and confronting violence.

Here are some of the elements of the storytelling process that help people to act against violence:

1. The first element is the time and space to think about their own lives and how violence has affected them. Most of the time, people like Ndoda have no time to stop and think. What helps people to act differently is to have an opportunity to take a step back and consider what violence means in their lives. The storytelling process involves creating a safe space for people to think.

2. The second element is recognition and empathy. People who act against violence need their own experiences of violence to be recognised and acknowledged. In telling their story, they are taking the time to stop and take stock of what has happened to them, and they need someone to respond with: ‘I have heard you. I see you. You matter.’ The storytelling process does this. It’s not just about remembering the experience, but having someone else recognising how you feel and how it has affected you.

This point is important beyond the storytelling process; empathy matters to stopping violence in general. Empathy is missing where there is violence. Making ‘us and them’ divisions makes violence easier; it provides a justification for treating others like something less than equal.

Bringing empathy back in is part of the solution, and stories are about (re)establishing a connection based on empathy. Stories break down our assumptions and help us connect to another person in a particular way; we see Ndoda very differently through his story than we would through reading his rap sheet.

3. The third element is a sense of connection. People need a sense that they are not the only one facing that situation and that there are others with whom they can connect: other people with similar experiences who are making similar commitments. My work with stories points to the importance of role models that show how other people have survived and that another less violent way is really possible; that other people are taking risks and that you can take them too. In the storytelling process, people make these connections with others.

This is a lesson from storytelling that can be applied more widely. Connections happen in many ways. What is important is a real connection between people with a shared commitment to addressing the problem of violence. Connections work best when people working at the grassroots can connect directly, understand each other’s context, and talk about the problems they face and the solutions they see.

4. Element four is about recognising violence in the everyday. Storytelling helps people see the importance of the ordinary and sometimes very small ways that they can confront violence around them, and how to get others to do the same. Confronting violence is not just one decision in one moment, but many decisions over and over, in acts small and large. Men and boys, women and girls have to challenge things which may seem very normal and accepted by everyone around them because these everyday things are part of what allows violence to happen. Personal storytelling helps people to have an awareness of what these things are.

Does the experience of storytelling and taking every day acts against violence have the potential to make a big change?

5. The potential for wider change from stories is through element five: dialogue. For people like Ndoda, violence is still happening all around him every day. Part of how he and others like him confront violence is to hold open a space for dialogue. Storytelling helps give Ndoda the confidence to push ‘pause’; to keep people talking. Keeping people talking is not easy; so many things can get in the way — fear, lack of information, worrying about what others think, and what they might do. People who are acting against violence are committed to taking the risk of trying to make dialogue happen — whether it’s talking down a husband who has been beating his wife; or a gang of young people ready to rob someone; or police officers threatening to shoot protesters.


I have seen people use their stories to tell their families and communities something they couldn’t otherwise talk about; I have seen policymakers drowning in reports and statistics watch a story and be brought to tears; I have seen people’s stories get their governments to really listen and to open a space for dialogue.

There is no guarantee with this approach. Not every person who goes through a personal storytelling process will become an activist against violence, and there are certainly people who are acting against violence that have never had the opportunity to share their own story with others. Storytelling is one of many important ways to address violence.

People like Ndoda and many others like him have had the courage to tell their stories. In doing this, they have rewritten how they see themselves, and how you and I see them. They have expanded the possibilities of who they can be and what they can do. In listening to their stories and others like them, you are honouring their commitment and the risks that they’ve taken. This is how stories can help us confront violence.

Watch Joanna’s TED talk on storytelling to help stop violence on YouTube.

Read Joanna’s related blog ‘Cups of love and cups of courage: facing up to the everyday realities of violence’ on openDemocracy.

Find out more about the work IDS partners are doing on storytelling and action to end violence here on Interactions.



Mona Ibrahim Ali

Mona Ibrahim Ali

Mona Ibrahim Ali is a Professor in the English Department at Cairo University. She obtained both her Masters and PhD degrees in American literature. She has publications on translation: theory and practice, travel literature, women’s writing and post-colonial literatures. She is the Director of the Centre for Humanities and Interdisciplinary Studies, Cairo University, and is a member of the Board of Trustees of the New Woman Foundation. She is the editor-in-chief of Tiba, the theoretical magazine of the New Woman Foundation. She is also a writer, storyteller and a member of the ‘I am the Story (Ana el-Hekkayya)’ storytelling group.

'I Am the Story'

I agree with Joanna that we need to ‘challenge things which may seem very normal and accepted’ and that we need to change attitudes and values that perceive violence as being just the ‘norm’. In using storytelling we can create new narratives that offer both women and men models beyond what they view as ‘normal’, and open up alternative ways of being.

Through its different activities, 'I Am the Story' presents an interactive model of empowerment and combating violence against girls and women. Training participants of both sexes to read the cultural heritage of the Egyptian society (whether it's oral or written) from a critical gender-sensitive perspective helps them realise the roots of the problem of violence against women. These roots are usually represented within widespread cultural materials in the form of stereotyping the roles of men and women in the society, putting women at a lower status than men and treating them in this cultural heritage as sex objects or simply objects, which renders violence against girls and women acceptable and sometimes even encouraged.

Unlike other conceptions of empowerment, 'I Am the Story' also allows the space for empowering discourses to be locally developed and not imposed by external players. Conceptualizing empowerment through creative materials is a special focus for 'I Am the Story', as it works on empowering women and girls through a gender-sensitive and artistic production of knowledge. Training participants to use art, represented by storytelling, to express themselves helps to give voice to the participants and to boost their self esteem and their ability to communicate their feelings and experiences. The following story is one example of the stories produced in our storytelling workshops:

A Cloth Doll

By Soha Raafat

When Fatma’s father entered the country house at sunset, Fatma’s mother was sitting on the wooden bench, and still crying. The father’s sympathetic yet angry gaze had become so familiar to the mother. The father said in a compassionate voice: 'You have been crying for over a week, woman. Aren’t you going to stop it? Do I have to repeat what I have been saying over and over?'

Fatma’s mother looked at him while sniffing and said: 'This is not fair… You are a pious man and you have visited the Ka’ba in Mecca. You are aware that Fatma is our only daughter… I cannot believe that you could be so cruel to her.'

The father lost his temper this time and shouted: 'These have always been our traditions and our legacy from our ancestors. Do you want our people to look down on me? I am Fatma’s father and I know what is best for her or do you want her to stay with you for the rest of her life in this house? If I listen to you, no man in this country would ever be interested in her. Come on, go and prepare dinner for me. I want to pray, eat my dinner and sleep immediately. Stop nagging me.'

When Fatma’s mother went to the kitchen, Fatma stood behind the door of her room watching her father praying. She was trying to understand anything about the catastrophe about to happen. She did not hear anything except the voice of her father asking God for forgiveness. When she got tired, she went inside her room, hugged her cloth doll and started talking and asking the doll questions about her fears until she fell asleep in a small corner of the bed and her little back was stuck to the cold stone wall.

The following day, early in the morning, Fatma saw her mother heating the water in order to bathe her. After the bath, the mother combed Fatma’s hair, pulled and interweaved it into two braids that remained hung up in the air as they were strongly stretched from the roots. 'Aiy ! Aiy ! Ahhhhhhhhh … My hair, mom, please unwind my braids a little mom, please mom let go…' But Fatma’s mother was speechless, her eyes were staring nowhere.

Suddenly, Fatma’s mother heard someone knocking on the door. She was stunned and ran to open the door quickly. The fat woman 'Om Badawy' stepped inside the house and said in her buzzing voice: 'How are you Om Fatma? Where is our little bride?' When she saw Fatma standing in the corner trembling of fear and the winter cold after the hot bath, she laughed and her gold tooth shone in the narrow sun beam that passed through the window of the big dim hall. She lifted and opened her grey stained cloth bag and brought out a small, sharp knife and a bag of cotton and a small bottle filled with red water, the colour of blood!! And then she laughed said to Fatma’s mother: 'Come on Haja Adeela, hold the little bride and tighten your grip on her. Don’t be afraid… I am very skillful and all children have a very short memory. Hope I come again soon to your place on her wedding day, if God wills.'

Fatma stared at the sharp blade in the hand of Om Badawy and hugged her cloth doll strongly. The shiver of fear ran through her body from the top of her head to the tips of her toes and her tight braids hung higher up in the air. Fatma tried to escape, but, like what happens in nightmares, her legs were heavy and would not move.

When her mother caught her clothes, Fatma resisted with all her being, kicked strongly in the air with both legs and arms over and over until she got extremely tired and then fainted while holding her cloth doll firmly. Her mother and Om Badawy carried her unconscious to bed.

Fatma’s loud scream brought her back to consciousness and shook her weak body like an earthquake shaking the earth. The colour of red blood was spread on her galabia (dress) and marked the face of her cloth doll. The following day, in spite of her pain, Fatma rose up from bed and put her doll inside her wardrobe… She did not utter a single word, as if nothing had happened.

Fatma’s mother and father were ready for the aftermath… They waited for Fatma to speak about the pain in order to cheer her up or bring her some sweets or a molasses lollipop from the grocery shop. But, Fatma did not say anything and did not cry….. Weird!! Maybe Om Badawy was right when she said that 'Children have a short memory!'

One week later, Fatma went to school and when she heard Aisha telling the girls about Om Badawy during the break, Fatma left the girls and walked away. As soon as she reached home, she walked directly to the wardrobe, had a look at her cloth doll with the stain of blood on its face, kissed the bleeding scar and locked the doll inside the wardrobe again.

Many years later, a year before Fatma was due to complete her high school education, a suitor came to her father to ask for Fatma’s hand. He was the type of suitor that everybody in the country admired, a pious and wealthy man. Fatma heard her father saying to her mother: 'Why do we have to wait for Fatma to finish school? I am Fatma’s father and I know what is best for her or do you want her to stay with you for the rest of her life. If I listen to you, no man in this country would ever be interested in her. Come on, go and prepare dinner for me. I want to pray, eat my dinner and sleep immediately. Stop nagging me.'

Fatma ran to the wardrobe, brought out her doll with the blood mark on its face, looking as if it was the fresh blood of a new bleeding scar. Fatma stood opposite her father and said with a steady challenging voice: 'Dad… there is no bride to be in this house. I am not going to get married now.' And before the father opened his mouth to speak, Fatma threw the cloth doll with the fresh blood mark in his lap and went inside her room, leaving the father in his complete bewilderment.

What happened before would never happen again to Fatma. Now, she knows quite well what she could do if anybody tries to hold her back once more.

Thank you Joanna for raising the issue of how and why storytelling matters in addressing and preventing sexual and gender-based violence. Not only do stories like Ndoda’s share experiences of violence that are so frequently silenced, but they also highlight the work of those who are acting to create change, and whose voices are not often heard in the response.

For me, the elements that you describe here emphasise the importance of personal stories in analysing and building power within transformative, people-centred approaches to social change. In turn, I'm going to share some further reflections on this point from my experience of the process of storytelling that we went through in Cape Town.

I experienced this as a journey of mutual learning and personal change, for me, and for the activists involved. Storytelling recognises the agency of all of us to affect change in our own lives and the lives of others. The act of telling your story in and of itself has influence on the power you hold within you, to believe in yourself and to recognise your choices and achievements.

In the research in Cape Town, we also found that learning with others across life experiences and social realities gave the opportunity for each individual to deliberate and understand alternative ideas of gender and equality. In doing so, many of those involved found new visions for social and gender justice that influenced deeply the shape of their stories and lives moving forward.

This mutual learning was integrally important to the activists involved, and as facilitators we were constantly thinking about what this means for how storytelling approaches can best support men and women to recognise solidarities and build relationships for taking action against violence.

In this case study we actually worked with personal digital stories to provide a springboard to help the storytellers understand and analyse what they are doing and what they want to be doing to address violence collectively. We used a visual form of power analysis to support storytellers to think politically about their own stories of how they have decided to address sexual and gender-based violence. This tool helped storytellers to further recognise their own political agency, and relate their experience to a wider socio economic, political context made up of intersecting inequalities which they are all acting within. This in turn helped support a more complex analysis of the tangled nature of sexual and gender based violence and the way that the inequalities that drive violence harm men, women, girls and boys. Ultimately this enabled shared messages to be developed by this activist group, which have been used to drive change at personal, community and institutional levels.

What I learned from this process was that in layering the individual into collective stories in this way we are providing space for our personal histories, identities and trajectories to be recognised, valued and to evolve within collective action. In doing so I have seen that this can create a powerful platform for building solidarities for action and amplifying the possibilities of transformative change in the response.