16 Days of Activism: Play seeks to broach taboo of domestic violence

News Stories, 3 December 2008

© UNHCR/A.Shahzad
This domestic drama in Losar Sharfu helps to drive home the anti-violence message through the use of a female impersonator.

LOSAR SHARFU, Pakistan, December 3 (UNHCR) It's not every day you see a man in a burqa, the sky-blue head-to-toe cloak most commonly worn by Muslim women in south-west Asia.

Seated in front of an audience of Afghan refugees, he towered over his fellow actors and spoke in a gruff voice. It took a lot of imagination to see him in character as a "wife" in this play about domestic violence, but it's a cultural compromise needed to raise taboo issues in this conservative community.

Last Thursday, Struggle for Change (SACH), a Pakistani non-governmental organization (NGO) funded by UNHCR, staged a drama performance for Afghan refugees in Losar Sharfu village of Pakistan's Punjab province. The event was part of the global 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence campaign that runs from November 25 to December 10 every year.

"Domestic violence is a sensitive issue and we can get into trouble if we approach it directly," said Khalida Salami, the Executive Director of SACH. "Theatre is a tool to raise awareness in a way that is easy to understand for the Afghan community."

To reach out to a community that works long hours in the nearby brick kilns, the NGO brought the play to their doorstep and staged it in front of the local mosque on a hill overlooking the fields.

"This is a story of two partners who lost their business but coped with it in different ways at home," explained Abdullah, the scriptwriter who also acts as a teacher in the play.

The all-male audience watched as one actor vented his anger on his family. He scolded his wife for her cooking, slapped his son and threw out his books. In contrast, his business partner went home, gave thanks for his food and spoke calmly to his wife. As their teacher-friend, Abdullah reminded them that the Quran teaches people to love each other.

"I am fully confident that after watching today's drama on stopping violence, Afghan people especially the men will live in peace and calm," he said afterwards.

Shepherd Said Omer Khan agreed, "I've learnt two things after watching the drama first that we should not fight over small issues and second that we should not ruin our domestic peace and then we will have a normal life."

Haji Mohammad Shah, an elder of the Afghan community in Losar Sharfu, agreed. "A life full of fights is not a life," said the 61-year-old livestock trader. "From now on, we will try to spend our lives in peace and keep anger out of the home."

Similar plays will be staged next year for Afghan refugee women to help them understand their rights within the community and family.

By Asif Shahzad in Losar Sharfu, Pakistan




UNHCR country pages

How UNHCR Helps Women

By ensuring participation in decision-making and strengthening their self-reliance.

UNHCR's Dialogues with Refugee Women

Progress report on implementation of recommendations.


Women and girls can be especially vulnerable to abuse in mass displacement situations.


Advocacy is a key element in UNHCR activities to protect people of concern.

Women in Exile

In any displaced population, approximately 50 percent of the uprooted people are women and girls. Stripped of the protection of their homes, their government and sometimes their family structure, females are particularly vulnerable. They face the rigours of long journeys into exile, official harassment or indifference and frequent sexual abuse, even after reaching an apparent place of safety. Women must cope with these threats while being nurse, teacher, breadwinner and physical protector of their families. In the last few years, UNHCR has developed a series of special programmes to ensure women have equal access to protection, basic goods and services as they attempt to rebuild their lives.

On International Women's Day UNHCR highlights, through images from around the world, the difficulties faced by displaced women, along with their strength and resilience.

Women in Exile

Refugee Women

Women and girls make up about 50 percent of the world's refugee population, and they are clearly the most vulnerable. At the same time, it is the women who carry out the crucial tasks in refugee camps – caring for their children, participating in self-development projects, and keeping their uprooted families together.

To honour them and to draw attention to their plight, the High Commissioner for Refugees decided to dedicate World Refugee Day on June 20, 2002, to women refugees.

The photographs in this gallery show some of the many roles uprooted women play around the world. They vividly portray a wide range of emotions, from the determination of Macedonian mothers taking their children home from Kosovo and the hope of Sierra Leonean girls in a Guinean camp, to the tears of joy from two reunited sisters. Most importantly, they bring to life the tremendous human dignity and courage of women refugees even in the most difficult of circumstances.

Refugee Women

Statelessness and Women

Statelessness can arise when citizenship laws do not treat men and women equally. Statelessness bars people from rights that most people take for granted such as getting a job, buying a house, travelling, opening a bank account, getting an education, accessing health care. It can even lead to detention.

In some countries, nationality laws do not allow mothers to confer nationality to their children on an equal basis as fathers and this creates the risk that these children will be left stateless. In others, women cannot acquire, change or retain their nationality on an equal basis as men. More than 40 countries still discriminate against women with respect to these elements.

Fortunately, there is a growing trend for states to remedy gender discrimination in their nationality laws, as a result of developments in international human rights law and helped by vigorous advocacy from women's rights groups. The women and children depicted here have faced problems over nationality.

Statelessness and Women

Croatia: Sunday Train ArrivalsPlay video

Croatia: Sunday Train Arrivals

On Sunday a train of 1800 refugees and migrants made their way north from the town of Tovarnik on Croatia's Serbian border. They disembarked at Cakovec just south of Slovenia. Most of the people are Syrian, Afghan and Iraqi. Their route to Western Europe has been stalled due to the closing of Hungarian borders. Now the people have changed their path that takes through Slovenia. Croatia granted passage to over 10,000 refugees this weekend. Croatian authorities asked Slovenia to take 5000 refugees and migrants per day. Slovenia agreed to take half that number. More than a thousand of desperate people are being backed up as result, with more expected to arrive later Monday.
Afghanistan Needs Your SupportPlay video

Afghanistan Needs Your Support

Croatia; Destination UnknownPlay video

Croatia; Destination Unknown