The stage lights brighten slowly, casting shadows across an audience sitting quietly in a theater. Three men and two women, already standing on stage and dressed in everyday clothes, start to act out a vignette. The performance takes perhaps 15 minutes, and then they freeze in place. End scene.
Then the auditorium lights come on, and one of the actors starts talking with the audience, asking them questions about the performance they just saw. An initial few tentatively raise their hands and share their thoughts, prompting others to join the conversation. At one point, a young woman is selected to come on the stage and re-enact one of the scenes, but this time acting out what she would have done instead. After she settles back into her seat, the audience is polled again, and another livelier discussion begins. Finally, the curtain closes; the forum theater performance has ended.
Forum theater is an interactive drama technique where the audience is an active participant. By sharing reactions and role-playing alongside the actors, audience members contribute their perspectives and learn from their peers. Performances cover a wide range of topics, but most focus on societal issues and rely on active dialogue to boost awareness and promote social change.
As part of its bigger goal to improve the justice sector in the West Bank and increase citizens’ engagement with the legal system, the Enhanced Palestinian Justice Program (EPJP) facilitated a series of forum theater performances spanning December 2014-January 2015. The USAID-funded program, implemented by Chemonics, focused these performances on gender-based violence (GBV) issues.
Why gender-based violence? In the West Bank, as in other places around the world, GBV continues to be a prevalent social issue. Despite government initiatives like the National Strategy to Combat Violence against Women, GBV, whether social, physical, or psychological, stubbornly persists. As of 2013, 37 percent of women in the region who had ever been married had been subjected to some sort of violence by their husband (UN Women). And Palestinian institutions consistently struggle to gather this data, suggesting that actual rates are much higher than what is reported.
Helping to fuel this scarcity of data is a widespread stigma associated with gender-based violence. According to UN Women, as many as 65 percent of women in the West Bank say that they would stay silent about GBV — a worrying trend that shows that the necessary conversations around this topic are simply not happening.