“During the Pandemic: Artworks of Children from Violent Homes in Nagaland (India)” - An Exhibition
CCYSC in conversation with Prof. Dolly Kikon
Prof. Dolly Kikon, an Indian anthropologist and author from Nagaland, who is working as a Senior Lecturer in Anthropology and Development Studies Program at the University of Melbourne, shares her experience of the collaborative exhibition of artworks with vulnerable children from Nagaland titled, “During the Pandemic.” In this feature essay, she also explains her methodology, challenges, and other significant aspects that came out of the exhibition like domesticity, gender, and violence.
During the Pandemic presents artworks of children from violent homes in Nagaland (India). As a collaborative exhibition with children, guardians, social workers, researchers, and grassroots organizations, this project celebrates art made by vulnerable children to share their experiences of the pandemic. The exhibition offers how children depict relationships, childhood, and the world around them. Perpetrators, victims, siblings, friends, nurses, birds, and animals are portrayed. Mountains, rivers, schools, houses, rice fields, ice-creams, and airplanes appear alongside flowers, clouds, roads, and sunrise. Sorrow, joy, intimidation, and fear are illustrated next to dancing ballerinas and princesses.
“My brother's are sleeping And me I am busy working.”
Question: Could you share with us briefly the very interesting project you have curated on During the Pandemic that presents artworks of children from violent homes in Nagaland (India)?
Dr. Kikon: During the Pandemic is a testament to collaborations based on mutual respect, trust, and solidarity. I (Dolly Kikon), Sisterhood Network, and Prodigal’s Home came together to campaign against sexual violence in 2014. Among other initiatives, the monograph Life and Dignity (2015) was part of our joint collaboration to address physical and sexual violence in Naga society. Since then, we have sustained the partnership and participated in campaigns to address gender violence in Nagaland.
In 2020, as friends reached out to support one another during the lockdown in Australia and India, My conversations with Azungla James (Director of the Sisterhood Network) were centered on the lives of women and children from vulnerable homes in Nagaland. Back home in Nagaland, Ela Sani (Director of the Prodigal’s Home) and Azungla James, along with the organizations they worked for, were involved in rehabilitating women and children from abusive partners. The work was overwhelming and exhausting. Over the months, grassroots organizations faced challenges as the volume of gender violence-related cases increased. Besides the psycho-social impact of the pandemic and increased workload on frontline social workers in Nagaland, the everyday trauma and difficulties for victims from violent homes were enormous.
Since the lockdown in India, schools have been shut to reduce the risk of infection. Many vulnerable children from violent homes have been unable to attend online schools due to the prevailing situation at home. They are also unable to afford mobile phones and computers. As a consequence, many children from such homes have dropped out of school during the pandemic. Grassroots organizations like Sisterhood Network and Prodigal’s Home have not only rehabilitated women and children but also provided resources like tuition and support for young persons who are impacted by violence at home.
“Daddy please say no to alcohol if you love us.” “My father beating to my mother.”
During the Pandemic stands up with children and women impacted by gender-based violence. It celebrates the lives of vulnerable children, the commitments of social workers, care providers, policymakers, practitioners, researchers, and volunteers in Nagaland and beyond.
As social workers like Azung and Ela worked with victims of gender violence, this meant long hours of meetings with lawyers, police, and traditional councils. The lockdown and the absence of school meant children from violent homes, and those rescued and staying in rehabilitation homes were also bored. They started drawing and sketching to keep themselves occupied. This is how the idea of holding an online art exhibition developed. Once the children, guardians, and social workers learnt about the art exhibition project, they were excited. Their artworks to be exhibited! Really? Yeah! This was the feeling and the spirit. In the last four months, long emails and conversations between Melbourne and Dimapur kept everyone busy. From organizing volunteers, briefing social workers, seeking permission from the children and guardians, all the way to arranging time and space, crayons, and papers for the children to draw transformed everyone.
Question: How does the methodology of drawing by children reveal their lifeworlds? Were there some challenges in the process?
Dr. Kikon: The methodology was an organic one. Art has been an immense source of joy for children during the pandemic. I noticed here in my suburb (in Melbourne) how children who were stuck at home due to the pandemic were putting out their drawings on the windows and public spaces. These art pieces brightened the spaces - be it parks, pavements, or walls - around the neighborhood. When Azung shared with me about children drawing during the pandemic, we decided to cheer them up and make sure their artworks and their messages were shared with other people across the world too. Ela joined in and provided the support for this collective vision. Had it not been for the Sisterhood Network and Prodigal’s Home team, this project would not be here. Most important of all, the children and their guardians who welcomed us in their lives and shared their art are the foundation of this project. They are the shining stars and our teachers. I also want to acknowledge the two volunteers who devoted their time and commitment to this initiative, Ms. Longshibeni Kikon, and Mr. Joel Rodrigues. This is how the exhibition came together.
Question: What are the significant problems that children from violent homes faced during the pandemic? Are there any specific forms of violence on children that the pandemic brought about?
Dr. Kikon: Children from violent homes are extremely vulnerable. Adults who are supposed to take care of them are also at risk and struggle with addiction and mental health issues. In many instances, women who are victims of domestic abuse are often unable to leave the violent relationship due to the children. Abusive spouses often use children as pawns to control and continue with the violent relationship. Some of the victims are also financially dependent on the husband, so issues of economic precarity also restrain them from moving out. The daily abuse and violence deeply affect the children. Second, children from violent homes suffer from deep trauma and are more susceptible to abuses including sexual violence. Finally, the rate of addiction and mental health problems in children from violent homes is high.
Imagine the plight of children and victims of domestic abuse during the pandemic. It is a global reality that cases of domestic abuse are exacerbated during the pandemic. Particularly, in homes where adults suffered from addiction to substances and were physically violent, children who were required to be home-schooled suffered immensely. Given the stressful situation at home, many children dropped out of school. They suffered physical and psychological abuse. In some cases, women who were fleeing from violent partners had to leave their children behind. This meant children were left to fend for themselves and cases of older siblings (as young as 10 years old) becoming caregivers for the younger siblings became common. In other cases, women who left with the children had to seek shelter, protection, and legal help. The number of such cases went up exponentially in Nagaland, but also across the globe. Finally, the pandemic also reinforced gendered hierarchies. Girls were made to take up extra work at home and also sent out as domestic maids to support the family. This has been happening across Nagaland for a long time. First, the Adivasi children from the neighboring state of Assam were brought as maids, and then it was the Nepali and Karbi children. Now, many households employ children from Eastern Nagaland (especially Mon and Tuensang districts).
“I miss going to school.”
Question: How does the armed conflict situation impact children and their well-being? Could you also reflect on the role of gender in this context?
Dr. Kikon: The Naga people have experienced one of the longest armed conflicts situation in the world. The consequence of long-term militarization has definitely led to deep structural violence in Naga society. Given the loss of lives in the conflict, and the growing inequality and poverty, the rate of children who drop out of primary school is extremely high in Nagaland. A national survey on education noted that Nagaland has recorded the highest rate of school dropouts in India. In that number too, girls in rural areas are the worst hit. In poor households, boys are preferred over girls to secure education. This means the female siblings are sent off to work as domestic maids or to the fields as I noted earlier. Furthermore, like many militarised societies, the issue of inter-generational trauma and violence is a reality in Nagaland.
I feel that the everyday experiences of domestic violence and poverty in Naga society need to be contextualized within a larger political world we inhabit. The idea of success, young Nagas are made to believe, lies in development and ‘moving on’ from the past. However, unless we work on the internal trauma and address ways of healing as a society together unless we recognize the value of caring for one another and speak the truth that violence breaks us all, and unless we accept that Naga society is an unequal society today where the gap between the rich and the poor is increasing, these issues of everyday violence will remain an issue about the “poor”.
This is the reason why Naga grassroots NGOs who were part of the exhibition - Sisterhood Network and Prodigal's Home - are committed to also raising the issue of child labor and gender justice in Nagaland. The idea of gender justice in Naga society, as my friends Azung and Ela teach us, is focused on collective equality that envisions a just future for all. And the notion of justice in this context involves actions of support, solidarity, and sharing resources.
“This is the last one. Let your brother have it.” “Boy, Private school, Girl, Government school.”
Question: What are the different forms of care available to such children facing violence in homes? What role do child rights activists, policymakers, social activists play to ensure a safe space for children even within the society?
Dr. Kikon: I am indebted to Sisterhood Network and Prodigal's Home in Nagaland for teaching me what it means to care for issues of gender justice in Naga society. As a researcher, I would say that the different forms of care available to children from violent homes are temporary and dependent on philanthropy and kin networks. It is necessary for state agencies to step up and address the contradictions and stark gaps. For instance, Naga officers and politicians cannot keep children as domestic help and talk about child rights and care.
Therefore, the role we can all play in ensuring a safe space for children is to start by calling up gender violence and supporting survivors of violence. Second, Naga traditional councils must have proper structures to address and provide care to children and women from violent homes. We must ask whether the Naga elders who are deciding on cases of domestic violence and child custody issues (in the traditional councils/ customary courts) have guidelines about gender justice. Finally, we must ensure that values such as respect, equality, and care are practiced by all citizens.
“Be kind to one another.”
To know more about the exhibition please visit:
The exhibition is a collaboration with Sisterhood Network and Prodigal's Home. We are thankful to the volunteers Joel Rodrigues and Longshibeni Kikon for their help. The most important collaborators in this project were the children and their guardians. Their active participation and voices are central to this exhibition.
All the photo credits in this essay go to Ms. Longshibeni Kikon.
Dr. Dolly Kikon is a Senior Lecturer in the Anthropology and Development Studies Program at the University of Melbourne. She has received her Ph.D. from the Department of Anthropology at Stanford University in 2013 and was a Post-Doctoral fellow at the Department of Social Anthropology at Stockholm University from 2013-2015. Prior to that she received her Bachelors in Law (LLB) from the Faculty of Law at the University of Delhi in 2001 and practiced in the Supreme Court of India and the Gauhati High Court in Assam. Her legal advocacy work and research continue to focus on land ownership and resource management in Northeast India, including extra-constitutional regulations like the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (1958). She is also a Senior Research Associate (SRA) at the Australia India Institute and host of the Melbourne Researchers in Focus Conversation series. She also serves on the Council of Advisors for The India Forum. Her research focuses on resource extraction, militarization, development, human rights, migration, gender, and political economy.
She can be reached out at: firstname.lastname@example.org