Popular Theater for Social Change

July 20, 2011
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Utilizing a grassroots approach to development is something that BRAC does incredibly well. Given the breadth of BRAC’s reach, undertaking grassroots best practices has proven to be a cost effective way of spreading the messages BRAC desires to send its constituents worldwide. During our field trip to Rangpur, Bangladesh we were able to witness an excellent example of grassroots engagement: Popular Theater.

Utilizing a grassroots approach to development is something that BRAC does incredibly well. Given the breadth of BRAC’s reach, undertaking grassroots best practices has proven to be a cost effective way of spreading the messages BRAC desires to send its constituents worldwide. During our field trip to Rangpur, Bangladesh we were able to witness an excellent example of grassroots engagement: Popular Theater.
Popular Theater is a simple and live theater production put on by several members of the village who have been handpicked by BRAC area staff to act out short skits and plays. Each skit provides specific commentary on common social issues such as healthy parenting, the environment, hygienic practices and gender-based violence, to name a few. The theater group is able to rotate through a number of these topics by performing once or twice a month. Popular Theater is one of the many effective and cost efficient ways BRAC disseminates important information to remote rural communities.
In the evening, our van took us down a long winding dirty road to a tiny village where the show was performed. When we arrived, we saw a mass of people; women, men and children of all ages gathered around a makeshift stage with BRAC messaging on a sheet hanging in the background. In the middle of the stage we heard singing and instruments playing as a musical prologue to the show.
We were told that the topic of the night’s Popular Theater was ‘eve-teasing’, a term which several of us foreign interns did not understand. Succinctly, eve teasing is sexual harassment; boys persistently giving unwanted attention to girls. This is a prevalent issue in many rural and urban areas of Bangladesh and one that only furthers tolerance for violence against women. It manifests itself as both physical or emotional abuse, ranging anywhere from verbal harassment to rape. Victims of ‘eve teasting’ often suffer life long effects such as social stigma, community ostracism and in some severe cases it can lead to suicide. I should mention here that, working together with other NGOs and international organizations, BRAC has successfully lobbied the Bangladesh government to change the euphemistic language of ‘eve teasing’ to sexual harassment. Additional efforts have included the establishment of Kishori Clubs where adolescent boys and girls have a safe space to practice positive interaction. Eliminating such forms of sexual harassment appears to be one of the many ways BRAC is contributing to gender parity in Bangladesh.
The skit begins with an finely crafted song about ‘eve teasing’ and foreshadows what is to come. The production depicts a teenage girl who is badgered by a boy and how each member of the community, from friends to police officers, can play their role to decrease the prevalence of such harassment. They tackled the topic beautifully; covering what this form of sexual harassment looks like and what can be done as the victim, bystander and parents. The skit also covered the repercussions and in the ending scene, the community members organized a rally and a community group to raise awareness on this issue. The entire production was exceptionally executed for low budget theater and we were all truly impressed by the passion and talent of the actors and actresses.
Throughout the duration of the program the crowd was engaged. Children laughed, adults yelled commentary and the actors and actresses solicited responses to questions or opinions on what to do next. Every member of the audience was impacted in some way by the performance.
Additionally, the educational component of the popular theater targeted all age groups. It provided easy steps with likable characters with whom each audience member could identify. Young children were introduced to the concept and shown healthy behaviors. Teens learned the repercussions of engaging in such practices and how to be a helpful bystander. Finally, adults learned how to support their children and also ideas for social change. It was clear to us that the plot and acting of the skit was specifically designed to impact each demographic present.
As always, one cannot be sure if the people in the audience will actually take the knowledge they have learned from the skit and apply it in their everyday lives. In fact, we might not see the true impact of these Popular Theater productions for a few more years. Despite that inevitable challenge, we anticipate that the skits plant the proverbial seed of healthy behaviors into the minds of the audience so that they carry it with them into their future endeavors. Over time, thanks in part to Popular Theater, general sentiment and actions towards sexual harassment will hopefully change. Girls will find the confidence to tell an adult when they’re being harassed. Parents will believe and support their daughters and finally, communities will become less tolerant of harassing behaviors. The battle for gender equity is an uphill struggle but we can guarantee that the Popular Theater productions are helping to bridge the divide between men and women in rural Bangladesh.
Not only did this experience provide us with information on one issue impacting Bengali culture, it also introduced us to an efficient, effective and sustainable awareness raising activity that anyone can do. It appears that approaches as simple as Popular Theater seem to have just as much importance as the more complex programs that BRAC employs in order to educate and develop rural communities worldwide.
By Cori Fleser
Cori Fleser is from Austin, Texas. She is currently interning at BRAC Bangladesh and will be pursuing her Master’s degree in Sustainable Development at the SIT Graduate Institute this fall.
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Anonymous
Anonymous
10 years ago

Very inspiring! Here is a similar situation in Guatemala through an organization called ArtCorps.
http://vimeo.com/17991923