Theater and Performing Arts for Social Change: Stories from UMANG Program in Jharkhand

Nitya Agarwal |

A March 2021 report by UNICEF highlighted that around 100 million girls are at risk of child marriage over the next decade. The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic in the form of school closures, economic hardships, parental deaths has made an additional 10 million girls vulnerable to child marriage. India has long been tackling the issue of child brides and adolescent marriages despite enforcing the legal prohibition of the practice. Adolescent girls are being forced to give up education to become young brides further exacerbating multiple forms of exploitation and health problems.

In this context, the International Center for Research on Women conceptualized the UMANG (Hindi for Enthusiasm) program in Jharkhand, India to increase school retention among girls and reduce child marriage. Supported by the IKEA Foundation, UMANG is being implemented by ICRW in partnership with Sathee, Badlao Foundation, and Project Concern International and in close coordination with the Government of Jharkhand. The UMANG program uses a socio-ecological framework and gender-transformative approach to form multi-layered interventions at the individual (adolescent girls), family, community, and system (schools, local governance structures, child protection mechanisms, etc.) levels. The interactive nature of program activities has generated much interest among the community members of Jharkhand.

To address the social norms and customs that play a critical role in perpetuating the widespread practice of child marriage, a new Social and Behavior Change Communication (SBCC) Campaign was launched by ICRW Asia in partnership with Bangla Natak to positively influence social norms toward supporting long-term change in the Jharkhand districts of Godda and Jamtara. The campaign was implemented with the active support of Sathee and Badlao Foundation at the district level.

Keeping in view the impact of street plays and their wide social reach, a unique campaign titled ‘Ujale Ki Ore – Bitiya Ki Daud’ (A Daughter’s Journey Toward a Brighter Future) was implemented under the UMANG program by professionally trained, local theater artists. The campaign was kickstarted by the Deputy Commissioner of Godda and Jamtara, on March 4 and 5, 2021 respectively. Since then, the street plays have raised awareness in villages on the aspiration and agency of adolescent girls, gender equality, and continuing girls’ education. Additionally, the plays have publicly recognized and uplifted parents who are empowering their daughters with information, education, and above all, their support.

Throughout the campaign, the UMANG team observed all precautions and guidelines related to COVID-19. In its first round, the campaign reached out to more than 45,000 people in 212 villages. The active participation of parents — taking a pledge to support their daughter’s attending school — was an important component of the campaign. So far, nearly 5,000 parents and guardians have pledged to support their daughters to pursue higher education — aligning themselves with the ambitious vision of UMANG.

Additionally, a theater-based communication and personal development workshop intervention was also designed under UMANG program to involve adolescents in the campaign. The objective of this campaign was to build public speaking skills among adolescents, foster leadership skills through theater; and initiate conversations on issues related to gender norms within the family unit.

Under this intervention, nearly 245 adolescents were trained in script writing and playwriting, theatrical techniques, and other performing arts to innovatively demonstrate adolescent and gender issues in public forums. The workshop also taught youth about the safe use of digital platforms, financial literacy, and interpersonal communication. Over the course of two months, the program has produced 12 residential workshops and 44 theater productions in 30 intervention villages, reaching a total of 3,000 community members.

The girls participating in the UMANG program have been making and performing muppet and puppetry shows to tell their stories in an engaging and creative approach. This activity takes place after the theater-based communications workshops as part of the skit performance campaign. Adolescents trained during these workshops are now organizing community shows in their villages, —  to raise awareness about issues plaguing youth.

The UMANG program has been a major step toward designing successful community-driven interventions on complex gender issues in remote areas. It has provided a voice and platform for adolescent girls to discuss their issues. The program is a blueprint for formulating and implementing other programs which aim at engaging relevant stakeholders to tackle issues of early marriage among adolescent girls.

UMANG Publications

Dare to Dream: Educational Aspirations of Adolescent Girls | Evidence from Jharkhand, India

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Raising Her Voice: Agency and Aspirations of Adolescent Girls on Marriage | Evidence from Jharkhand, India

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Nitya Agarwal

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