Foreign organisations are using community theatre to promote gender equality and the advancement of women in Myanmar.
The community-led theatrical program received financial and technical support from the British Council and is designed and implemented by Francois-Xavier Bagnoud (FXB), a Swiss non-government organisation. The program sees young people recruited as peer educators to write gender-related stories based on real-life incidents and then act them out for communities.
“We provide a trainer who comes from the UK to work with the young actors who learn techniques and how to convey information through theatre,” said Mr Kevin Mackenzie, director and cultural attaché at the British Council.
Each story deals with a particular problem the community is facing and follows a format where people’s misconceptions about issues such as gender, sex and reproductive health lead to a tragic ending. The cast interacts with the audience at the end of each play, asking whether they liked the ending, and spectators are then invited to revise the play and replay their version of the story on stage with the cast.
“I think theatre as a channel for education has been around for many, many centuries probably. It’s not a new idea itself but certainly for this kind of work I think it’s a fresh idea,” said Mr Mackenzie.
While the idea might be imported, FXB program director Daw Toe Toe Yi said theatre is an effective method of communication in a country like Myanmar, where social attitudes, religious practices and other cultural factors make it difficult for people to openly discuss issues such as gender and sex.
The theatre program is part of a project funded by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) that aims to promote gender equality, reproductive health and awareness about the 2014 census in four villages in Thanlyin, Twante and Shwe Pyi Thar townships.
Under the program, FXB and UNFPA have been providing a variety of free services to the communities since June 2012 through Community Learning Centres, including reproductive health services, vocational training and interest-free loans.
“When the program was announced in the village, I signed up right away. I’ve attended the five-month training without missing any classes,” Daw Aye Thu, a 32-year-old resident of Kayin Seik village in Yangon Region’s Thanlyin township, said last month.
“By learning professional skills such as embroidery, I’ve gained more confidence. I’m excited to be able to work and earn a living on my own rather than just stay at home doing all the housekeeping,” she said.
The project will be expanded to conflict-hit areas in future, according to Daw Khin Zar Naing, a national program officer for gender at UNFPA.
She said UNFPA, in partnership with United Nations Development Program, United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation and the government have started discussions towards establishing relief camp-based Community Learning Centres in Kachin and Rakhine states.
One potential problem for the organisations is how to ensure the centres are sustainable in the long term. “We realise we can only be here for a certain period,” said Daw Toe Toe Yi. “But we are involving the local communities from the planning stage so that this is their project. They own it and they need to sustain it on their own.”