'Black' woman's tale drives Nepal rights campaign

Last Updated: Wed, Mar 10, 2010 05:50 hrs

Dark, untouchable and a slave, yet Kali is the heroine of a campaign to protect the rights of the disadvantaged communities of Nepal, especially women.

She is the central character in a street play, 'Kali Aimai, the black woman, which has been sponsored by the UN to tour Nepal's remote districts to campaign against violence targeting women, exploitation and untouchability, and to train local artists to spread the message farther.

'While working in the far west, we found rampant economic, social and cultural discrimination,' says Chitralekha Massey, coordinator at the UN human rights office in Nepal that is sponsoring the theatre campaign against discrimination.

'There was a complete sense of resignation: people accepted their fates as their kismet. The complete culture of impunity in the legal framework contributed to it.'

Though the government has abolished the 'haliya' system - the practice of slavery that sees a family working for an employer without payment all their lives - it still flourishes in Nepal. So does untouchability and a form of violence particularly targeting women from poor families. This is the 'bokshi' phenomenon in which villagers accuse any woman they dislike of being a witch who has caused either deaths or misfortune to them. The accused is forced to eat human excreta and at times beaten to death or set ablaze.

The UN agency started its campaign with a comic strip to teach victims and their families how to make a police complaint. It was followed up with a TV campaign in partnership with the Prime Minister's Office.

However, the message did not reach rural Nepal, where there is no electricity, literacy, running water or even motorable roads. So Actors' Studio, a maverick theatre company in Kathmandu, was asked to stage street plays in remote areas.

Performed at market places, bus stations and village meeting points, Kali Aimai is the tale of a director who coaches the villagers to perform his play after his actors fail to arrive due to a general strike.

The plot is about a landlord trying to avenge himself on his slave, Harka, and the latter's wife Kali, after they refuse to work for him without wages. He accuses Kali of being a witch who tried to kill his wife and villagers humiliate Kali on his orders.

However, the villagers roped in as actors revolt against the story and force the director to change his play so that it ends with the landlord and his henchmen being arrested by police.

While performing the play in different villages, the actors injected local dialects and tales told by the audience to make it seem like their own story.

'Women often cried during the performance and asked us to include their plight during menstruation, when they are confined to a cowshed and not allowed to enter their own houses,' said Tanuja Basnet, a researcher with the project.

'They told us even government schools did not allow menstruating women teachers to take classes.'

The cast includes actors from communities that are still regarded as untouchables.

Crew member Hira Bijuli Nepali, a 20-year-old from Mugu district, belongs to the Dalit community whose members are still not allowed to enter temples or use the same water tap in a village.

Nepali says he is in the play as an 'investment' for his Dalit brothers. 'I want to take to remote places the message that the times have changed,' he says.

'People also need to change.'

(Sudeshna Sarkar can be contacted at sudeshna.s@ians.in)