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Ending global poverty begins with women’s rights
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Changing attitudes to women through theater

by Oxfam | March 30, 2012

At three in the afternoon, a black pick-up truck came to a halt on the grass pitch at LhokNga’s school. In the back, under a blue tarpaulin, is a public address system. Minutes later, another truck arrived. Its cargo is a three-meter high green wooden box, made to resemble a television. Stenciled on either side of the box are the words, TV ENG ONG. Across the road, feedback whined over the mosque’s speakers. “Come and watch Agus PMTOH of TV ENG ONG perform today. His show on equality between women and men,” bellowed an announcer.

Thirty-six year-old Agus, one of Aceh’s most famous storytellers, used theater as a vehicle to promote human rights and peace. He was working on a 150 million rupiah ($16,680) Oxfam production to help change attitudes toward women in Achnese society – while at the same time entertaining more than 5,000 people in 20 locations.

“The show reminds us that women and men have equal rights,” Agus explains before the start of the show.

Irreverent, warm, witty, and humorous, the small troupe led by Agus performed three vignettes during each 60-minute performance. It’s a simple story that mirrored the reality of life for the majority of men and women in Aceh.

The central linking character is Apa Kaoy, a slothful, dim-witted man. All day, he sits in coffee shops drinking and smoking. “It’s a kind of joke with Achenese people that a man will be sitting smoking on the coffee shop. That’s our main character,” giggles Agus.

The performance took place from within the wooden box, TV ENG ONG. It was bit like watching a puppet show, only with people.

In one scene, Apa Kaoy, who cannot cook, grumbled when his wife, exhausted from working in the rice field, had not prepared supper. In another, he disapproved of his daughter’s ambition to study at university. Instead, holding a newspaper upside down because he cannot read, Apa Kaoy told his daughter it’s important that she learn to cook, clean, marry and have children.

Eventually, though, his attitude towards women softened as other more enlightened men pointed out the error of his ways.

The show, aimed at 15-24 years olds, was meant to entertain but its central message is serious. Studies showed that women in Aceh struggle to break out of the cycle of unpaid domestic work and that the position of women in society was generally low. That, explained Risa Yudhiana, Oxfam’s Gender Officer, is a problem, ‘because inequality leads to poverty.’

Oxfam had been promoting equality between women and men in Aceh. The campaign started with a series of radio plays, but community feedback was mixed.   People were looking for something interactive such as traditional Achnese storytelling.

After considering all the options, Oxfam chose to work with Agus PMTOH and his theatre company, TV ENG ONG. With total artistic freedom, Agus scripted a play on the role of women in society. It was, by his own admission, a difficult task.

“To make a good drama about women’s empowerment is very difficult because first you have to understand what gender equity is,” he says.

Oxfam’s gender team met frequently with Agus to help script the play. Then to perfect the show and iron out any wrinkles, TV ENG ONG performed a full dress rehearsal at Oxfam’s office in Banda Aceh.

Shortly afterwards, the show opened in Calang to an enthusiastic audience of 500. Since then, thousands have seen the engaging and thought-provoking performances. The attendance is smaller at today’s show in LhokNga because rain it has threatened to rain all afternoon.

As the show drew to an end, it was news hour on TV ENG ONG. The studio anchor crosseed live to Agus, it’s reporter in the field. Mingling with the crowd, looking for someone to interview, Agus held a plastic orange basket that doubled as a satellite dish.  A TV cameraman, an actor, improvised with a large red funnel attached to a cardboard box.

“Do you want your daughter to get married as soon as possible or go to the college?” he asked one women. ‘I want my children to go to college after finishing high school and maybe one day become a doctor or an engineer,” she responded.

To another he asked, “why should your daughters go to college?” “Because women also want to be empowered,” she replied.

Handing back to the studio TV ENG ONG ends. ‘It was a good performance today. The people accept our message, especially the mothers,” smiled Agus.

That was a view shared by Syukriah, 40, mother of two daughters aged, 12 and five. “My favorite part was when they discussed how the man needs to improve and support the daughter who wants to get higher education.”

by Ian Woolverton, Oxfam