Last September, UNDP invited FutureGov to Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan to bring new ways of working to government public services. Just before Christmas, Simone and I returned to help explore a new project around prototyping in gender-based violence centres.

Gender-based violence in Kyrgyzstan is a massive, complex, deeply-rooted issue. It can be the biggest thing in one person’s life or swept under the carpet for another. It’s so widespread that it’s seen as normal, expected, nothing special to make any noise about. We found that “most Kyrgyz women live like this, it’s not surprising” (statistics say 84%). And while we all felt a bit rocked by the stories we heard, I don’t think any of us were surprised. Which is heartbreaking in itself.

Everyone has a story, here’s mine

We ran two days of user research sessions with women who have experienced gender-based violence and three days of staff workshops. We developed ideas to be taken back to centres and a project platform outline for local and national organisations.

Although the process of running research and then staff workshops is very familiar to me, I learned a lot about running them in a different setting.

Translation is hard

Simultaneous translation takes getting used to. You have to adjust your language, accent and way of asking questions. In an interview, it’s easy to speak to the translator and not the person asking or answering questions. It’s unsettling. Eye contact is crucial. In a safe space, people are generally willing to share their story, but the breaks in rhythm needed for translation made follow-up questions difficult because our interviewee was ready to share their next story. It must have been exhausting for the interpreter.

I have biases

There are four generations of police officers in my family. I was raised to trust in the justice process, to believe in and work with victims, to listen when a woman tells a story (because she’s usually got more to add). I also live in a place where psychological abuse is convicted as strongly as physical violence. For this trip, I knew I needed to hold these views separately as I listened and learned.

As a researcher, I was prepared to pause and ask for more information. This allowed the space for me to discover more about how police practices affect the way women are treated when reporting an incident. If a woman presents herself without any signs of physical struggle (i.e. ripped clothing or bruises) a consensual relationship is assumed. Regardless of her testimony, she might be turned away and the incident will go unreported.

Bedroom in one of the centres we visited

There are ingrained stereotypes in every culture, and it was difficult for me to closely witness a stereotype different from my own background. It’s not uncommon for police to tell women that they’re lying because of a cultural belief that women are “deceitful”.

But, it was important for the project to collect these practices and stories as fact, not to compare Kyrgyz practices to international examples. We needed to share real examples with the group to show a clear picture of the reality of what is happening now and how that links to the process and emotions experienced throughout the service.

Running interviews in women’s apartments

Workshops with the teams

We only had a short time together, with staff travelling across snowy mountains ranges to be with us, so in an effort to move through the process swiftly we broke into groups, giving more time for making. Using personas we asked the groups to help build and define user personas, adding to them with details from their own experiences.

It isn’t standard practice to collect stories with the aim of stepping back to identify trends or similarities. Our teams were surprised to see that this approach can be done quickly and with only a handful of people.

Plotting the moments where check-ins could occur between the women and the services

Across our three days together, the teams voted on ideas and got used to presenting “unfinished” ideas. Kyrgyz tradition states that the youngest is ‘volunteered’ to present their ideas while experienced leaders (the majority of the group) create the direction. This approach meant we had fewer ideas to explore, with many at a very high level like building online databases or lobbying Government. Returning to this approach with short and sharp questions, we shifted the focus to gain wider levels of detail that the team could turn into visible prototypes.

The language and statements we used were also very different to how we lead idea development workshops in the UK. I’m used to using metaphors and open-ended questions to provoke thinking in teams. It felt different to turn our broad-thinking statements into 10 minute instructed tasks. We set the tasks, left teams to talk them through and prepare their answers to present back.

Ongoing work

The teams we worked with will continue meeting under the guidance of the UNDP team to keep testing and implementing changes in their centres. They’ll be expanding on ideas we created in our workshops, including:

  • receiving psychological counselling over WhatsApp, a process we mocked up using lego
  • the launch of a website with advice and guidance
  • a group chat between professionals all working with the same woman
  • group chats across centres to help respond to shortages and enable swaps of staff and space

We ended our workshop days with a traditional Kyrgyz closing meeting. One woman from each region made a small speech thanking us all and sang a short song from their region (we sang too). The women spoke of their enjoyment in being together and building ideas, learning from these new methods, creating actual things to take away and their enthusiasm to keep going together.

We knew our cultural and design assumptions would be tested by this week of working in the world of gender-based violence. But we came away reaffirming that when you get smart and passionate women in a room, the feeling for change and momentum doesn’t need a translation.

Things I’ll take with me:

  • a gifted bracelet from the teenage woman whose story (and tenacity) I will never forget
  • the ambition to trial a more direct approach to tasks and questions in future workshops, and see what the difference is
  • small songs or similar rituals to end projects, it feels lovely

You can see Kirsty in June at UX Scotland speaking on the importance of mapping and how to do it well.

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