By Elaine McCartin —

Last week, I explored how art is being used to educate the public about the harsh realities of gender-based violence.  Too often, such violence persists because of cultural traditions and ignorance. Art can help to change attitudes around gender-based violence by raising awareness and providing a space to tackle sensitive subjects, like rape and child abuse.

This week, I want to go beyond education, and look at what happens after art creates that space.  How does art contribute to the larger debate on gender-based violence? What forms of gender-based violence should be punishable by prison? When is it the government’s job to intervene?

In Egypt, Women on Walls (WOW) is making some serious waves.

One artist characterizes Egypt as “one of the worst countries when it comes to women’s rights.” Egypt only criminalized sexual harassment for the first time this past June.

WOW takes on many different issues regularly faced by Egyptian women, such as sexual harassment, domestic violence, and rape.

Another artist, 21-year-old Enas Awad, describes her motivation for taking her message to the streets:

“Whenever there’s an issue regarding women who have been sexually harassed, it’s always the woman’s fault.  We’ve had enough of that.”

Another artist named Salma El-Gamal, age 19, believes that WOW’s graffiti has the power to affect change in Egyptian society.  Graffiti is one of the easiest ways to deliver a message, and she thinks that the art can trigger something in people that invites passersby to stop and ask questions.

Learn more about WOW and meet some more artists:


As one artist says in the video:

“We have these issues and we have names for them, like FGM, but what is it really about? That’s what we have to figure out for ourselves and express, but that might not be words or might not be propagandish. It’s just this feeling, and that’s what we are going to try to convert on this wall.”

Freddy Tsimba, an artist from the Democratic Republic of Cong

Freddy’s  work has been the source of much debate in his home country, which has been in a persistent state of conflict and instability since the mid-1990s.

In that time, rape and sexual violence have become systematically used as a weapon of war.  In 2010, UN special representative on sexual violence in conflict Margot Wallstrom called DRC “the rape capital of the world.”

In this piece, Freddy uses used bullet shells and shrapnel to depict a pregnant woman and her child.  The materials come from battlefields that Freddy scours himself.

Freddy’s sculptures represent how women’s bodies are used as weapons, just like guns and machetes.  Just as a bullet can destroy a life, so can a rape.

But Freddy’s art is even more complex than simply illustrating the horrors of rape in war zones.  Out of this destruction of life, there is also hope:

“Congo is like a pregnant female, made of spent cartridges, but who will give birth to a child… For me it’s life that restarts, rising from elements that take away life.”

Female genital mutilation (FGM) is another sensitive subject that is often debated around the world.  While FGM is widely regarded as a dangerous practice and a violation of the human rights of girls and women, the practice persists because many cultures see it as a right of passage.

In countries like Nigeria, which has one of the highest numbers of cases of FGM in the world, artists are bringing the debate into the public sphere.

These artists do not depict FGM as a right of passage worthy of honor, but rather as experiences of suffering and sorrow.

Ufuoma Onobrakpeya

In this painting, titled Female Genital Mutilation, Ufuoma incorporates elements of pre-colonial Nigerian art. By integrating aspects of traditional Nigerian culture, Ufuoma juxtaposes the harmful practice of FGM with the excuse that enables its continuation.  He shows that even in the context of cultural tradition, FGM is a horrific practice.

Due to a variety of factors, such as religion and cultural traditions, it can be extremely difficult to reach a consensus on gender-based violence. Defining gender-based violence and its causes, challenges, and solutions all vary depending on a variety of factors, such as where you live and what your ancestors believed.

Art, like the examples I’ve laid out above, plays a big role in contributing to this ongoing debate that is taking place globally, nationally, and locally.