Project Report: The Graphic Novel Tackling Violence
Grantee: Tolerspace, Kyiv, Ukraine
Project: to create a graphic novel for 10-13-year-old girls, and training of peer-guides in interactive use of this to raise awareness of violence.
One of Tolerspace’s peer-guides, 17-year-old Olga Sidelnikova, describes her involvement in the project:
On a sunny September Saturday ten teenage girls and two psychologists gathered to discuss personal safety, protection from bullying and harassment. They read and talked about a colourful graphic novel entitled, “I am not your cat”.
The comic was the result of a collaboration between civic activists from Tolerspace: an artist, Dana Verstak, child psychologists Anna Lenchovska and Olexandra Chirkova, educators and teenage volunteers. They also took advice from Natalia Pashko, an expert on child abuse who is working on guidelines for the Ukrainian police. They brainstormed topics for illustration to produce this graphic novel, taking care to write the dialogues and inner monologue of the teenager characters in such a way that it believably reflected their thoughts and conversations. In the printing house, Dana chose a light yellow and black colour scheme to avoid gender stereotypes and connections. The book looked bright and coherent. The style of drawings is well balanced: it is clear what is going on, but there is not so much detail as to cause discomfort to the reader.
The book is devoted to difficult and deeply distressing topics, but in such a way that readers are not retraumatised. Bullying, sexual harassment, and peer pressure are hard to talk about, but one needs to know how to act in such situations. Illustrations include ‘Swimsuit Rules’ – guidelines for girls to identify when someone is behaving inappropriately or in a non-consensual manner. One tells a story of harassment by the character’s tennis trainer. It shows that sometimes people you know can be capable of sexual violence towards you. However, reading the comic is not intended to make teenagers afraid of their parents, relatives or teachers. Instead, it should make them more aware of the problem and of ways to seek protection and help.
It is very important that the authors have written about the feelings of victims of sexual violence, and that, besides understandable anxiety and fear, physical arousal is also mentioned. Teenagers should know that arousal or pleasant feelings are not excuses for crime. A feeling of arousal does not mean consent for touching or inducing a teenager to have sex.
Not all the male characters in the comic are portrayed negatively. The stories are not intended to encourage an unconscious fear of men. An example of a positive male character is in one of the stories about bullying. He is “the teacher, whom you can trust”. It is even written on his t-shirt. When the whole school is whispering behind your back or openly harassing you, someone like this could become a real rescuer. I hope you have one. I never had one.
As for the opponents of sex education for children and teenagers, we should be aware that, as well as the ultra-religious and supporters of so-called «traditional values», there are people who believe that kids do not know how to protect themselves, are not capable of creating their own boundaries, and do not know what to do if they are harassed or bullied. It is better to learn how to protect yourself from sexual harassment and violation of your comfort zone by reading books, comics, watching videos or listening to a podcast, and not through personal experience.
Aside from the creation of a graphic novel, the project also involved providing qualified psychotherapeutic counselling and training for peer-led discussions based on the stories, with the aim of creating a support network for the participants. It was provided in partnership with the Children’s Psychotherapy Project of Kyiv Gestalt University.
The authors plan to develop a series of comics and create a comic for boys, because sometimes it is harder for boys to protect their own boundaries, than for girls. Many participants in the training became peer-guides. They will share the graphic novel and the knowledge they have gained with other girls. Tolerspace also works with teachers and other adults working in social care to create a support network for teenage girls.
Tolerspace’s mission is to create an educational space where a culture of human rights and tolerance can be developed. The centre works to facilitate the inclusion of young internally displaced persons, provides opportunities for dialogue, joint learning and action in conflict resolution and reconciliation, so teenagers in Ukraine can broaden their activities.