Kexin Li, '21

February 25, 2021
Richmond Scholar advocates for survivors of sexual violence

The reunion was bittersweet. After more than seven decades, her grandmother reunited with a childhood friend she last saw just before the outbreak of World War II, said Kexin Li, ’21. In 2016, Li traveled with her grandmother from their home in Chongqing in southwest China to the friend’s home in a village in Sichuan Province.

“Her friend was living alone in a shabby home,” Li said. “She told us how the Japanese army forced her into sexual slavery. She said we were the first people to hear her story without calling her a prostitute or judging her.”

During World War II, Japan notoriously used females in occupied Asian nations, including China, as “comfort women,” a euphemism for women abused as sex slaves by Japanese officers and soldiers.

“The comfort women issue is a national skeleton in our closet,” she said. “China hasn’t resolved its pain and shame from World War II and its own history of misogyny and paternalism.”

The meeting with her grandmother’s friend, who died in 2019, inspired Li to champion victims of sexual violence. Her University of Richmond majors in leadership studies and women, gender, and sexuality studies (WGSS) have helped her do just that.  

The Jepson School of Leadership Studies exposed me to people’s histories and battles that were hidden from mainstream political and educational discourses,” the Richmond Scholar said. “It equipped me with skills to articulate and uplift those narratives. My WGSS classes helped me frame my actions in the language of social justice, intersectionality, and inclusivity.”

Li often uses performance art to advocate for survivors of sexual violence. In summer 2018, she created, directed, and co-produced “Her White Dress,” China’s first public performance on child sexual abuse, she said. The play depicted a real scandal involving the sexual molestation of children at a Beijing kindergarten by school doctors and teachers.

“The Chongqing police department called me right before the play’s premiere,” Li said. “I had to delete parts of the play the police considered too ‘obscene.’ They cut the number of performances from four nights to one night. Still, the show was a huge success. Three-hundred-fifty people packed a 300-person theater.”

That same summer, she launched “Take off the Shame,” a performance art project in which she took off a bra that bore anti-sexual-violence slogans while she stood in Chongqing’s crowded streets. The project’s video received more than 40,000 views on the Chinese social media platform Weibo. Activists in two other Chinese cities copied the project.

During summer 2019, Li interned with the Los Angeles-based nonprofit Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking, where she helped plan re-entry trainings for human-trafficking survivors. She also built the preliminary database for the National Survivor Network

For almost three years, she has been researching comfort women and sexual violence as a weapon of war with political science professor Monti Datta, an expert on modern-day slavery. Through a WGSS independent study, they are writing a paper on the connection of comfort women and contemporary sex trafficking.

In addition to her academics, the self-described Chinese feminist is active in extracurricular campus activities, including serving as president of The Vagina Monologues, a performance organization committed to ending violence against women, and as a co-leader of Richmond’s peer sexual misconduct advisors. The 2020 China Rhodes Scholar finalist is currently applying to graduate school programs in women’s studies, contemporary Chinese studies, and public policy.

“I feel an urgency to uplift the voices of survivors. I want to connect with well-known women to advance my platform globally. Eventually I want to start my own nonprofit in China to support survivors of sexual violence. I’ll use performance art to get out the message.”

Update: In April, The Jepson School named Li a 2021 Jepson Scholar, awarding her an all-expenses-paid scholarship to attend the University of Oxford, where she will pursue a Master of Science in Contemporary Chinese Studies.