Written by Catriona Cahill, Development Officer, Theatre for a Change
In 2012, the United Nations Population Fund revealed that around 34% of the 52,000 female sex workers living in Ghana have had an unprotected sexual encounter with the police against their will.
Just over one-third of all women in Ghana have experienced physical violence; the majority of women report that it is most often a sexual partner committing the crime. With sexual violence already prevalent throughout society, just imagine how it is intensified within the industry of sex work where women feel they must necessarily subordinate themselves to their clients.
Yet, with only 9% of female sex workers in Ghana reporting a non-discriminatory standard of treatment from the police, it is no wonder that only half of them would consider seeking justice after suffering any form of abuse. Statistics such as this make a strong case for advocating for the rights of these women: the right to report abuse, the right to access justice and the right to live a life free from fear.
The current project by Theatre for a Change working with female sex workers in Accra is titled Access to Justice. Twenty women from two of the poorest communities, Old Fadama and Railways, are participating in the project which first focuses on behaviour change, then advocacy, then access to service provision. Everything about Theatre for a Change is rooted in participation; all projects take place in circles; performances are always in the round. This approach stems from the philosophy of Augusto Boal, author of Theatre of the Oppressed. Boal believes that, through theatre, ‘the oppressed’ can explore and identify solutions to their own problems; change comes from within.
When I first visited Accra in March, the Access to Justice Project was in its infancy. Within the four-walled security of Jamestown Community Theatre Centre, the women were just beginning to explore and show symbols of change: alterations in how they held themselves, a greater eagerness to speak. Together, through improvisation, role play and enormous trust, they began to identify their own risky behaviours and explore solutions.
As the project has moved forward, the women have become empowered to enter into their communities and tell their stories to the people who need to hear them the most: the police service, the brothel owners, the clients, the men. They play out scenarios that their audience can identify with and invite them to step in and change the course of events. Together they explore alternatives and discover solutions while attitudes are challenged and changed. Here we see further elements of Boal’s philosophy creep in: Theatre for a Change does not remove the actors from the spectators – dividing walls that Boal said were symbols of oppression – instead the audience is encouraged to participate. ‘The walls must be torn down’ Boal demands: the oppressed are making theatre their own.
Just a few weeks ago, the walls were torn down in spectacular fashion as the once closed doors of Jamestown Community Theatre Centre were flung open to welcome brothel owners, chiefs and members of the community for a radio listening club. Together the group sat in solidarity to listen to the women participate in an interactive radio drama, broadcast across Accra and the Central Region, highlighting the rights of sex workers.
The changes I witnessed back in March were just a part of this bigger process. I just hope these changes continue to grow and seep out into these women’s lives. I hope a change is going to come for them and their communities that means that they can live without penalty or fear. And I hope these words of one of our former participants will soon be echoed by them all:
‘My first strategy was to stay away from him…then he will lay ambush and attack me in town….one day I mustered courage and looked straight in his eyes like you taught us to have eye contact when we want to be assertive and shouted back at him for the first time and he just left me there without touching me. Previously I could not look him in the eyes or talk back at him…now I am free.’ – Program Participant
About the author:
Catriona Cahill lives in London and worked behind the scenes in commercial theatre for four years before joining Theatre for a Change in 2014. She was based in Ghana for four months before joining the UK team as Development Officer.