Culture in action: street theatre raises awareness of child marriage in Pakistan

Bedari performance: the groom is arrested and taken to the police.

Safeer Ullah Khan is the Coordinator of the Bedari Theatre Programme. Bedari is a Pakistani non-governmental organisation (NGO) that works with women and children to promote and protect their human rights.

When Saba, 19, heard of the impending child marriage of 10-year-old Bubbly in her village, she decided to step in. Her mission: approach everyone who had the power to stop the marriage from happening.

Saba approached Bubbly’s and the groom’s parents to talk them out of the wedding, she asked the clergy not to perform the ceremony; she even reported them to the police. But the marriage went ahead. Those arrested by police were free after paying a petty fine of US $ 10.

Despite her failure to protect Bubbly, Saba’s determination did not waver: she swore to raise awareness of child marriage and lobby for laws that protect girls.

Saba and Bubbly are the main characters of “Yeh Shadi Nahi Ho Sakti” (This marriage must not take place), a play on the consequences of early marriage, created and performed by Bedari volunteers in North and South Punjab, Pakistan.

Bubbly may be a fictional character, but her story is a reality for too many girls in Pakistan – and at Bedari we believe it is a story that must be shared widely.

The power of storytelling to challenge attitudes on child marriage 

Bedari performance - Saba arguing with groom

Bedari performance – Saba arguing with groom

It often comes as a surprise to people when I tell them drama is one of the most powerful ways to raise awareness of social issues.

Street theatre is an essential Punjabi tradition, an inexpensive form of entertainment that focuses on the common man’s life and problems. While most street theatre groups have stopped performing, the concept remains alive in Punjabi culture.

In my view, telling stories has the power to change people’s attitudes more than any other form of outreach. Street theatre resonates with an audience in a way that sermons and laws cannot, and at Bedari we tap into that potential as we try to change community attitudes towards child marriage.

Of course, street theatre is rarely a standalone project. Rather it is an integral part of our advocacy for more stringent laws on child marriage and their actual implementation. As long as the community feels it is okay to marry 10-year-old girls, legislation will not transform traditions. By opening up a space for conversation, street theatre creates a favourable environment for change.

A grassroots approach to writing a play on child marriage

Bedari performances have a real impact in bringing social issues like domestic violence or sanitation to the forefront of community discussions and we’re witnessing the same impact with “Yeh Shadi Nahi Ho Sakti”.

The key is to write a play that reflects each community’s unique understanding of and experience with child marriage. With culturally and linguistically diverse areas like North and South Punjab , there is no “one size fits all” script.  We must find ways to resonate with the audience every time.

So how do we get people to identify with the characters? It all comes down to how we interact with the community. We interview members of the community to get “inside information” so that we can get a better understanding of the cultural context in which child marriage happens. These interviews also help us to listen to and learn the local dialect so that we can include it in our plays and ensure they are authentic.

We meet girls who were married young, talk to their parents and gather anecdotes from religious leaders. While it is not always easy to do – after all child marriage is a sensitive topic – speaking the local dialect helps build trust and develop personal relationships with the community.

Our plays have no strict storyline with a beginning and an end: instead, we expose different aspects of the issue. We show what motivates parents to marry their daughters, how girls are personally affected by child marriage and how the law enforcement officials react to those cases. We leave the audience to draw their own conclusions and we hold discussions with them to debate the issues raised in the play.

Street theatre’s long-term impact on child marriage

Measuring the impact of street theatre isn’t easy. Child marriage is still viewed as a family matter not to be meddled with and we cannot systematically obtain information from the families themselves. It is difficult to judge how much we’ve influenced a family not to marry their daughter.

But the reaction has been overwhelmingly positive. The play often hits home, as people know neighbours, friends or family members who’ve been through a similar ordeal. The play opens their eyes and sparks conversations that previously didn’t happen.

The challenge is to keep that conversation going. One way we’ve found is to involve locals, often students interested in acting and who, with minimum training, manage to prepare short plays relevant to the local context. Their involvement is key to the sustainability of the project, as they often take on the issue as their own and become advocates against child marriage in their communities.

I’ve been writing and performing plays about women’s and girls’ rights for the past 15 years of my life and, in my mind, there is no doubt that street theatre is one of the most powerful tools to raise awareness of child marriage.