Friday, May 31, 2013

Perepetu: The role of community theater in women’s leadership at the grassroots

(Perepetu, right in cap, enacting the role of a man)

Perepetu Mukankera is an actress in community theater.  After receiving training on legal and human rights in the early 2000s she and other women in the program have over the years being engaged in advocacy and raising awareness in their communities through the Byiringiro Community Theater group, sponsored by Rwanda Women’s Network.

Through a play of the same name (Byiringiro means hope in Kinyarwanda), the group dramatically traces the women’s eventful lives and the effects from the 1994 genocide to date, and offers a story of hope where there is opportunity to heal from the trauma suffered by many women from rape during the genocide, including isolation, fear and stigma caused by HIV and Aids. The play incorporates SGBV, HIV/Aids, justice, peace and reconciliation and leadership as some of its major themes.

Through community theater women survivors are able to see themselves and are encouraged to come out and open up about their concerns. Citing examples from her experience as a community paralegal, Perepetu narrates how some women mistreated by their husbands, fared.

“I explained to them their human rights and about the legal course of action to take,” she says. “I urged them to take their concerns to court. However, when their husbands came to know about it after the cases were taken to court, the women were chased from their homes. With nowhere to go they sought me out, and I accompanied them to court. The men were charged and prosecuted and now observe the law and accord the women their rights. Some of the husbands even went ahead to formalize their marriages.”

Being aware of issues affecting one individually or those around you and having basic knowledge on how to address the concerns is empowering. Being among the first women to get community paralegal training and accumulating experience in assisting women through the years has meant that Perepetu has gained leadership status among her peers.

Community theater is the vehicle Perepetu uses to spread the word. As a grassroots woman and being able to enact situations that afflict the grassroots women and their families gives her the power to communicate and transform her community.

Her personal story is painful, which many of her peers may relate to.

Perepetu was a 36-years old mother of five during the genocide, and was pregnant with the sixth. Her husband was killed during the genocide, while one of her children was shot – though the child survived.

“I was beaten and suffered extreme sexual violence and rape,” she narrates. “My attackers used all sorts of objects on me, including hands and sticks during the rape. I lost my pregnancy as a result of the ordeal.”

With no husband and destitute, she became a beggar by the roadside. “I had nowhere to sleep and nothing to eat, and went from house to house begging.” She explains that immediately after the genocide one could not trust anybody “because it was the people who knew each other who ended up killing one another.” It was however through a neighbor that she got to know about where she could receive help and treatment free of charge.

“I have since been receiving the assistance I need from the RWN,” she says.

Rwanda Women's Network (RWN) is one of the four partner institutes of the African Centers of Excellence (ACE) for Women's Leadership program run by the Institute of International Education (IIE) , Ethiopia Office.
For more on IIE , ACE or RWN please follow the links below.