Bandhan Nahin Bachpan

A closer look at how Aahung has organized many interactive theatrical performances as a means of  community engagement, enthralling and educating rural audiences on topics of gender, family planning and child early marriage.

There is no denying the power of a good story. It gives us an opportunity to learn from another person’s        
experience and it can shape, strengthen, or challenge our opinions and values. When a story catches our        
attention and engages us, we are more likely to absorb the message and meaning within it than if the same        
message was presented simply in facts and figures.

Taking stories where they need to be told, street theatre is the name given to a form of theatrical performance and presentation in outdoor public spaces without a specific paying audience. In Pakistan it has always been a significant feature in the lives of rural communities, and at times been the only source of entertainment. Street theatre sprang from the assumption that everyone can be involved in the fight against oppression and dictatorship and express themselves with creativity without having undergone formal training.

Aahung, a Karachi-based NGO that advocates for sexual and reproductive health and rights in Pakistan, has taken this form of awareness-raising into many of the rural and peri-urban communities it has worked in. One of Aahung’s plays that aims to target the menace of child marriage is called ‘Bandhan Nahin Bachpan’ (loosely translated to ‘childhood instead of (marriage) bonds’) and sheds light on the cross-cutting themes of gender inequality, the need for contraception and family planning information, as well as gender-based domestic violence. The organization runs focus group discussions before and after the performance to assess the impact made.

“After watching this show, I have understood how unfair I have been to my daughter-in- law, I think it is time to change my attitude. It is not in a woman’s control to give birth to a boy or a girl,” says Sakina, a 45-year-old resident of Thatta who watched the performance.

Pakistan is home to nearly 19 million child brides where 1 in 6 young women were married before the age of 18 and nearly half of these child brides have given birth before turning 18 as well1. Child marriage is prevalent due to several reasons including but not limited to deeply entrenched traditions and customs, poverty, lack of awareness and/or access to education, and lack of security. However, one of the least cited reasons is the need to control a young person’s sexuality. The level of legal, social, political and/or economic restrictions on female sexuality defines gender roles, norms and indeed, power dynamics. Though it is rooted in gender inequality and the belief that girls and women are inferior to boys and men, its drivers vary between communities, and it looks different across – and within – regions and countries. This gender inequality is bred within patriarchal systems – that is, systems that give control to men – that value girls according to their virginity and enforce limits on female sexuality and reproductive choices. This can mean controlling how a girl behaves and dresses, where she goes, who she sees, and if, who and when she marries.

Aahung’s programs, which are strongly centered around human rights and pay particular attention to choice, respect, and equality, have been shown to elicit significant attitude and behavior changes in young people, particularly girls. Enhanced knowledge of bodily rights and integrity, and demonstrations of improved negotiation and communication skills on issues of marriage, school attendance and sexual harassment have been recorded through evaluations of Aahung’s programs. Communication platforms like street theatre continue to play an expanding role in influencing social power norms and creating new avenues for young people to access and utilize information. Aahung uses communications platforms both to pilot test innovative strategies for relaying information to young people through digital and interactive platforms, and to enhance capacity building initiatives which have already shown efficacy.

“We have been organizing street theatres on social issues for many a decade now, but child marriage is a topic that sparks a great deal of debate as people tend to look at it from the lens of religion. When that debate starts, any discussion on human rights is immediately sidelined,” says Mahmood Bhatti of the Lahore-based Azad Theatre, a theatre troupe with a fan following especially in the Punjab.

It is important to keep the theatre interactive, with questions posed to the audience for better participation as the performance goes on. At times leading questions are asked by the narrator to understand whether cultural sensibilities are tickled, and whether values have been questioned at all. Given the opportunity, impromptu dialogues are inserted by the actors themselves to exaggerate a given point during the play. Often the show ends with a flourish, when the pulsating rhythm of the dhol complements the emotional climax, cathartic to some viewers. Quite often the show ends with a lively discussion amongst the audience.

Aamna Latif is a passionate human rights activist. She is also the Communications Manager at Aahung, a Karachi-based NGO that advocates for the sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) of men, women, and children across Pakistan.

“I was studying for my exams when they came with the rishta. My elder sister was married when she was 12 years old, so I knew even if I protested, no one would listen to me. I put down my books and changed into new clothes, my mother put make-up on my face and gave me jewelry to wear. I served them chai and samosas.

Then, the next day, something happened that changed my fate forever. A street performance took
place in our neighborhood which my parents attended. The actors spoke about a girl’s rights to living
a life- our freedom, our childhood, our body protection. It covered how early marriages can make life almost impossible for young girls.

My sister, pregnant at 14, was living proof. That day my mother summoned the courage to talk to
my father. It was very difficult and he reacted harshly. But when she told him it was against the law,
he stopped and listened. It took a few months of convincing, and he finally understood. And I am not
suffering like my sister. I will work hard, complete my studies, get good grades and become a doctor. I will make sure more girls are not forced into a life of misery, like my sister.”
- Quratulain, 12 years

Aamna Latif