Using street theater to teach about safe abortion

Drawn by the sound of traditional drumming, a crowd has gathered on a sunny morning in Zambia’s capital, Lusaka, to watch young performers dance and sing energetically.

The dancing then gives way to a skit in which a charismatic male character courts one girlfriend, and then a second. The actors are masters of comedy (indeed, several of them are stars in locally produced television programs), and the audience laughs often. By the time the plot thickens to its educational climax, the crowd members are fully enjoying themselves—and primed to absorb the information on sexual and reproductive health intentionally woven into the plot.

When the lead character’s girlfriend discovers she is pregnant and HIV positive, and a fight about how to handle the unplanned pregnancy erupts in public, a kind policeman intercedes and advises the couple visit the local health clinic’s youth-friendly corner for counseling on their options.

This is theater for community action: a method proven effective around the world for sharing essential and sometimes life-saving information on sexual and reproductive health. Ipas supports youth-led and youth-focused partner organizations in Zambia, Nepal, India and elsewhere in using street performances to teach people where they can access services like contraception and safe abortion. The performances also create conversations and shift attitudes related to the stigma surrounding abortion and youth sexuality.

“Many people thought that termination of pregnancy is illegal in this country, so the first step we took was to enlighten people on the legislation surrounding abortion so that people understand it is legal,” says Eric Kasomo, program officer at Africa Directions, a youth-led organization in Lusaka, Zambia, that organizes street theater performances in eight communities across the city. Performances use singing, dancing and comedy to inform young people they can obtain confidential contraceptive and safe abortion services by visiting “youth-friendly corners” within the city’s health centers.

“There’s a lot of stigma around abortion; we are losing a lot of young people.”
Eric Kasomo, Africa Directions program officer

“Working with youth is important because I’m able to share information with people who don’t have access to it.” – John Phiri, actor
Young actors who volunteer with Africa Directions to perform street theater are masters of comedy—and several star in local TV programs.

A FUN WAY TO LEARN

Street theater like this is effective because it strategically weaves health information on taboo or stigmatized topics into high-energy, engaging performances that appeal to young and old alike.

“The brilliance of these skits is that they make communities receptive to information; otherwise, if you walked into a community and announced you wanted to tell them about safe abortion, they would chase you out,” explains Ipas Zambia Youth Advisor Nana Zulu, who has supported Africa Directions’ theater for community action project.

“If you put on a good show and start a skit with humor, the crowd doesn’t even notice when the themes have switched to sexual and reproductive health and safe abortion,” Nana says. 

Young actors use traditional dancing and drumming to draw a crowd before they begin their educational skit.

LESSONS THAT LAST

Some skits are interactive, allowing the audience an opportunity to chime in. For example, a female character with an unwanted pregnancy might ask the crowd “what should I do?” The crowd suggests options and then performers act out one possible scenario. After, they’ll pause again and ask what could or should have happened differently. To account for cultural taboos and stigma surrounding sexuality and abortion, skits often start with less controversial reproductive health topics and then move to addressing abortion.

“Interaction during the skit allows the audience to create the very messages the actors want to convey,” Nana explains, “but in a way that involves them and builds buy-in from the crowd.”

Follow-up is also important: After the street performance, peer educators trained by Africa Directions wear easy-to-identify shirts and roam through the crowd announcing their availability—now and later—to answer questions about sexual and reproductive health. Some people approach them in public, while others seek them out later for a private discussion.

Skilled young actors John Phiri and Karen Chulu perform a comical scene in which a couple fights over suspected infidelity.
The crowd of spectators grows as the action heats up in this educational street theater skit about where to access safe abortion.
A male character in this skit suggests his girlfriend visit a traditional healer to end an unwanted pregnancy—a learning moment ensues.
The crowd learns from a scene in which a policeman stops a couple’s fighting to advise they seek health care at a “youth-friendly corner.”

MORE STORIES BY IPAS

See what a “youth-friendly corner” looks like – and learn why it works

Why should youth be at the center of programs to improve their reproductive health?

Join us in building innovative youth-led programs!

For more information, contact media@ipas.org.

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