Countering Violence against Women in Conflict-torn Nepal

BY JANNIE KWOK
Apr 23, 2010

Tradition and conflict in Nepal have vanquished community safety networks that protect women against violence, but one village is taking dramatic action.

 

I recently watched a local Nepali theatre group skillfully combine theatre with politics to explore gender-based violence in conflict-afflicted communities.

Developed in the 1970s by Brazilian political activist and director Augusto Boal, “The International Theatre of the Oppressed” is a method that has been practised in theatres across the globe to help communities address social injustices.

 

Developed in the 1970s by a Brazilian political activist and director, “The International Theater of the Oppressed” is a method that has been practiced in theaters across the globe to help communities address social injustices.

Developed in the 1970s by a Brazilian political activist and director, “The International Theater of the Oppressed” is a method that has been practiced in theaters across the globe to help communities address social injustices.

 

A drama is acted out in scripted mode until it reaches climax, at which point the audience is asked to collectively reflect on the problem and invited into the drama to “rehearse” the preferred ending they envision for their communities.

When I arrived to see the first performance at Aarohan Theatre in a Tharu village in the Kailali district of mid-western Nepal, the actors dressed in colourful traditional Tharu costumes were dancing and singing to attract an audience. I was particularly pleased to see a large number of women and their small children gather for the performance.

The play began with a typical village scene: a wife is doing household chores and her husband shouts to her to make him tea and breakfast. It continues to depict the daily hardships in the village and the struggles of the Tharu people. Then one night, the husband comes home drunk and shouts at his wife belligerently. During this scene, a woman in the audience commented to all of us (including the Aarohan director), that this scene frequently played out in her own house. She laughed softly, but her eyes were sad.

The narrator stopped the play at a dramatic point when the husband was about to beat his wife, and asked for comments from the audience. A woman seated near me loudly suggested that he should not beat his wife. The narrator asked her to join the drama and act out what the wife should next say to the husband.

 

Performers re-enact a scene of domestic violence, then stops to ask the audience how the rest of the scene should be played out.

Performers re-enact a scene of domestic violence, then stops to ask the audience how the rest of the scene should be played out.

 

Initially she refused, but after some encouragement from the Aarohan director and other audience she approached the “stage” and proceeded to speak out against the abuse. Although her moment in the spotlight was short, she had a chance to rehearse what she wanted to do in real life; to fight against the violence she faced.

The audience also shouted out other ideas and solutions, such as asking neighbours to intervene or going to a mothers’ or women’s group for assistance. After more than an hour of discussion and debate, the husband in the play finally signed an agreement stating he would not beat his wife. This action was facilitated by the local mothers’ group members.

Through these exercises developed by “Theatre of the Oppressed,” the audience not only got to suggest the outcome they wanted for the play; they also got to practise how to make that outcome a dramatic reality, in essence learning how to deal with real-life gender discrimination and oppression in the process.

As the group performed, I was surprised by the boldness of the village women in the audience and their courage to speak out against their own oppressive situations. Tradition and religion have long relegated Nepali women to a lower status than men, but the decade-long armed conflict in Nepal has severely exacerbated the inequality in male-female relationships, increasing women’s vulnerability to exploitation and violence.

Factors contributing to the disproportionate impact of the conflict on women include damage to traditional social and economic networks, loss of male heads of household, forced displacement, and reduced access to health and education facilities.

As a result, this breakdown of community safety networks has also led to marked increases in the incidence of threats, rape, sexual harassment, and exploitation perpetrated against women.

 

The Aarohan Theater in mid-western Nepal, skillfully combines theater with politics to explore gender-based violence in conflict-affected communities.

The Aarohan Theater in mid-western Nepal, skillfully combines theater with politics to explore gender-based violence in conflict-affected communities.

 

Today, women in the most conflict-affected areas of Nepal continue to encounter high incidences of domestic violence in their homes. A local survey taken in Mid-Western Nepal, revealed that 91% of the 190 married women interviewed have tolerated domestic violence in the past two years. About 86% were forced into non-consensual sex, 70% reported physical injuries and 50% reported injury by a weapon at least once.

As a consequence of such abuse, these women not only suffered physically, but 79% also became severely depressed and even contemplated suicide, while 14% of those have attempted to do so.