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Raising the curtain on child marriage

Theatre for a Change

In Nepal, almost 37 percent of girls are married under the age of 18, but many are much younger. VSO and Theatre for a Change have been piloting an unusual new approach to help address the issue. 

In Chakrakhali, southern Bangladesh, 15-year-old Suborna dreamt of going into further education. However, her parents struggled to support her and her sister financially, and so Suborna dropped out of school in the eigth grade.

"No one physically forced me to get married but I was mentally pressured,” says Suborna, “I thought of my parents and my sister and decided that if I got married it would give my father more of a chance to support my sister’s educational expenses.”  

Suborna is not alone. Bangladesh, along with Nepal, has one of the world's highest rates of child marriage. Although awareness is on the rise, many communities struggle to talk about the issues openly.

To help communities start a conversation, VSO and Theatre for a Change have piloted an unusual technique in Bangladesh, using stories from participants' own lives to help communities spark a conversation on the issue of child marriage, forcing decision-makers to take notice.  

A few months ago in Parabatipur, Bangladesh, a story unfolded on stage. Ryan Borcherding, Theatre for a Change's New Partnerships Programme Manager, was there to facilitate. It was the story of a 14 year old girl, who had been married young and ended up pregnant and was suffering from complications.

"The last scene in that play was her on stage alone, holding her body and looking at the audience and saying 'please help me'. We simply asked, 'how would we like to help this person?'”  

Ryan saw two women seated in the first row rise and help the girl on stage to her feet and asked, "what’s next?", spurring them to suggest taking her to the doctor, played by a doctor who was seated in the audience.  

Ultimately, the girl was taken to the police station and had the man arrested in the play. 

Participants perform a piece on the issue of child marriage in Parabatipur, Bangaldesh. Photo credit: Theatre for a Change  Theatre for a Change

Participants perform a piece on the issue of child marriage in Parabatipur, Bangaldesh.

This theatre performance encourages audience members to get involved, using a technique called ‘touch-tag’ whereby participants in the performance ‘tag’ members of the audience, nominating them to swap into the places of characters and participate in the performance.  

Devi Chhetri, an audience member at a performance in Nepal, said, "I could really feel the performance. I had little knowledge of child marriage, but seeing the performance today gave me more knowledge and the realisation that from now on I can spread the message amongst my friends and relatives that child marriage is wrong."  

Theatre for a Change and VSO are tackling issues that are difficult conversations anywhere, but with the particular cultural issues in some of the countries VSO are working in, they're even more difficult.

Baroness Hilary Armstrong

VSO trustee and volunteer

After a pilot in Bangladesh, VSO and Theatre for a Change worked together in Nepal, Rwanda, Tanzania and Swaziland; starting community-led conversations on a range of issues around gender-based violence. So far, the partnership has worked with 80 trainee facilitators, 200 peer participants and almost 800 community audience members.  

But more importantly, early research shows that individuals are committing to change behaviours, by speaking to children about sexual and reproductive health rights and refusing to accept child marriage.

Attendees take part in an interactive theatre performance at Paliament VSO/ Becky Mursell

TFaC facilitators use theatre to demonstrate to an audience how community performances take place.

“It isn’t as simple as saying it’s a cultural issue. It’s about understanding where poverty plays a part, or where dowry plays a part. Most people, when they realise how detrimental early child marriage is to girls, for their health, such as early pregnancies and in terms of their education, they soon understand how they can play a part in changing that,” says MP Dr Rosena Alin Khan who witnessed the performance while volunteering with VSO last year. 

And that change has ripple effects across the community. Participants who have shared their stories, and joined in with performances, are seeing changes across their communities. One participant Pramila said: "Not only can they (the audience) see the issues, but with role play they can also solve the problems."  

Together VSO and Theatre for a Change are changing the conversation for girls, empowering them to speak up about issues that matter to them. You can see more of VSO and Theatre for a Change's work here.