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War inflicts lasting physical and psychological damage on many people and subsequent post-conflict development often leaves them behind. Long after the war is over, ex-combatants and civilians with conflict-related disabilities remain trapped in extreme poverty and social exclusion. One way to change this is to empower them with the confidence, knowledge, and skills to assert their socio-economic rights and to demand government services. Such “legal empowerment” is a form of rights-based development that accords with the emphasis on access to justice and inclusion in the 2015 UN Sustainable Development Goals.

This project examines an innovative way of empowering persons with conflict-related disabilities in Sri Lanka through an unusual combination of dance and law that was pioneered and piloted by VisAbility, a German association, in mid-2015. It consists of four main activities: (1) workshops that combine integrated dance (where disabled and able-bodied dancers perform together) and legal empowerment; (2) flash mobs and dance performances in busy, public spaces by workshop participants; (3) research on how the workshops and performances affect the agency, dignity, welfare, and inclusion of persons with conflict-related disabilities; and (4) dissemination of research findings to development policymakers and practitioners.

Persons with conflict-related disabilities will benefit from this research in several ways. First, their participation in the workshops and co-production of the research will ensure that the project meets their needs for empowerment. Second, the dance performances (which are both research outputs and objects of research) play an integral role in impact. For disabled participants, performing and ‘making abilities visible’ helps them to develop confidence, autonomy, and self-esteem, and to overcome potential insecurities about being seen/looked at. Third, the research findings will be incorporated into a practitioners toolkit that will help the partners and other civil society organizations combine integrated dance and legal empowerment more effectively. Fourth, the research aims to drive the empowerment of persons with conflict-related disabilities higher up the policy agenda. Finally, the project will produce an evidence-base on linking legal empowerment with participatory performance to reduce extreme poverty and social exclusion for persons with conflict-related disabilities after conflict.