News - May 24, 2011

'Replace the husband!'

African and Asian MSc students at VHL put on a 'forum theatre' performance about violence against women and girls last week. The public could intervene and were given food for thought.

Imagine the despair of a mother when her 15-year-old daughter turns out to be pregnant. All her hopes for the future were focused on this girl, until one of her teachers forced himself on her. When the mother accuses him, the head teacher backs up the teacher, who denies everything. The pregnant schoolgirl, Felicia, is expelled from school. What options did Felicia have? This question was posed by African and Asian MSc students at VHL Wageningen to students and staff in the audience on Thursday 17 May. The students acted out short scenes with a passive Felicia. The audience were allowed to shout out 'stop' at any moment, and take her place. One of the substitute Felicia stepped back with a start when the teacher touched her face, and asked him not to touch her. When the teacher said it was 'not a big issue' and asked if she wanted good grades, another Felicia threatened to report the teacher to the management for sexual intimidation.
'There is a lot of domestic violence against women and children. They are the most vulnerable', says Afghan student Khalida Mukhid, who is specializing in Rural Development and Gender. In a second scene, she played the neighbour of a woman who is abused by her husband. 'In Asia and also in many African countries, you cannot call the police for that. Everyone will laugh at you, or get cross, or worse.'
This form of theatre, called Forum Theatre, can be used to get people to think about practical solutions for difficult situations, says Mukhid. Neatness Bwenge, who plays the role of the abused woman, agrees. In Tanzania she works for an organization which teaches women to cook by modern methods, for example using a charcoal oven. 'Using traditional methods, women have to carry heavy loads of firewood and when they are out collecting it they run the risk of being raped', she says. Bwenge hopes to use Forum Theatre in villages in the future. 'It can raise awareness.'
And the abused woman in the students' play? Women in the audience advised her to go to a women's organization or a respected member of the community. The most impractical but hilarious suggestion was, 'Replace the husband!'