Theater Advances Gender Rights in El Salvador

by Creative Action Institute

ArtCorps Artist Naphtali Fields and the women farmers she works with find the courage and confidence to begin working together in new ways.

In a recent meeting with my theater group of women I pulled out some sheets of paper and crayons and asked them to draw a map of the year’s journey, the future they imagined for our group over the next few months. No one opted for the crayons, but most got busy with colored pencils, drawing with a concentration I hope will someday transfer to theater exercises. I walked around the group, complementing their color choices, admiring their work, and trying (as always) to keep random chickens for pecking at my toes. After a while I noticed two women in the group weren’t drawing. Their paper lay in their laps, and they were looking at the ground. The closest, Mamita, is the grandmother of most of the women in the group. She is tall and dignified, ancient and always kind to me.

“Mamita,” I asked, “Why aren’t you drawing?  Do you want me to get you some different colors?” Lupe, her granddaughter, looked up briefly from her picture to say,

“Mamita can’t write.” Mamita nodded her head vigorously in assent.

“But drawing is different than writing,” I said.  “You just have to put the colors together.” Then Mamita clarified for me. She had never held a crayon, a pencil, or a pen. She didn’t know how to put it in her hand. I brought over one of the jumbo crayons I had bought on a whim and fashioned her fingers around it. “Now all you do is decide how you want the colors to go together” I told her. At first, she barely nicked the paper with the crayon, self-conscious and grimacing. Then, after glancing around to see that no one was watching or laughing, she tried again, managing a very nice red circle. I left her drawing circles triumphantly and went to encourage Ildit, the other quiet woman who had never held a crayon before.

After about twenty minutes, we showed our pictures and shared what they meant. Margarita had drawn a plane with herself as the pilot, saying she wanted to be in charge of her own life and make her own decisions. Almost everyone had drawn fields of ripe corn and beans, hoping for a good harvest. Some drew us together, holding hands and working to better the community.

But I was proudest of Mamita. Though her paper was covered with black, red and yellow circles, she showed it off to all of us. “Did you see what I did?” she asked us. Though the other drawings were technically better, she encapsulated the spirit of this year more than anyone. At face value, art seems a poor tool to bring to communities like San Francisco. Every woman is burdened with more work than she can handle, kids with parasites, little food, and now, a real shortage of beans because the rains last year were too strong. Wouldn’t I be more useful if I was advocating a food or health program? The answer, I think, is more complicated than what I want to say. I want to say that no, handouts and benefits are not helpful in the long term and the beauty of art, of creativity, is that it teaches us to think critically about our lives and gives us the tools to organize and change that which causes our suffering. I believe that’s true, but I’m learning that it’s a lovely thing to believe and a difficult belief to live.

Art and social change take time. I came here to teach theater, then realized that for many of these women, it will take a year of work to give them the confidence and courage to stand in front of ten people and say a few lines. Organizing is hard. If the water comes down the main pipe, as it does every eight days or so, all meetings are cancelled. Babies get sick. Housework has to be done, tortillas have to be made three times a day. If it rains everyone stays home. There are a million things that seem more urgent than getting together to play games and talk about creative thinking. Yet, we still meet. Our numbers have dwindled after the first burst of interest, but those who remain are growing in confidence and camaraderie. We might not be mounting any full-length productions soon, we might not solve the problems of malnutrition, parasites and economic scarcity, but we’re slowly beginning to draw our dreams together. And this time, everyone can hold a crayon.

Community Savings Meeting
Community Savings Meeting

ArtCorps Artist Naphtali Fields is busy digging into her work with Salvadoran grassroots organization AGROSAL. Although AGROSAL is a grassroots organization that works on agriculture and livestock initiatives in El Salvador, it also has gender and savings initiatives. So what exactly do gender and savings have to do with agriculture? A lot.

According to the 2008 World Development Report on Gender in Agriculture, women make up the majority of the agricultural workforce worldwide and are responsible for producing the bulk of food that is consumed locally. As a result, women are the principal agents of food security and household welfare in rural areas. Yet, women face incredible challenges in maximizing their agricultural output and income. These challenges include:

  • lack of rights, such as property rights, which makes it riskier for women to invest in new technologies;
  • discrimination, which reduces women's ability to make household decisions;
  • lack of access to financial services, which makes it difficult for women to invest in inputs such as fertilizer, heartier seed varieties and vaccines for livestock. Investments in agricultural inputs can boost output and therefore increase income.

As a result of these connections between agriculture, gender and financial services, AGROSAL has both a gender campaign and a community savings program, which complement their agricultural work. ArtCorps Artist Naphtali Fields is working to bridge the existing gap between these two initiatives and strengthen both through theater.

Naphtali has begun to meet with the key leaders and community representatives that she will be working with throughout the year. These community leaders include:

  • 8 people from the citizens' group Ventana Ciudadana
  • 5 representatives from the youth association
  • 20 women leaders from community savings groups
  • 4 AGROSAL community promoters
  • 14 AGROSAL volunteers
  • 15 students
  • 9 teachers

By collaborating with these 71 community leaders, who come from many different areas of civil society, the work Naphtali does will be enriched by a variety of perspectives, allowing the project to gain local traction.

Stay tuned for more project details!


Street Theater
Street Theater

What started out as a pilot will takeoff as a full-fledged project in 2011. In 2010 Chilean theater artist Antonietta Inostrozo Garabito initiated the partnership between ArtCorps, Oxfam and its grassroots partners. During 2010 Antonietta worked with both professional actors and community members and field staff who had never used theater before, empowering them to use theater to address gender violence in the communities where they live and work.

2010 Pilot Activities

1. Forum Theater for Professional Actors

Oxfam America often collaborates with Escena X, troupe of professional actors in El Salvador, to engage audiences in its campaign to prevent gender violence.  Antonietta worked with Escena X to add Forum Theater skills to their tools. Forum Theater is a social action tool that seeks to tackle the dramatization of conflicts by inviting actors to act out alternative outcomes to a scene based on input from audience members. It generates a debate and joint problem-solving; it is dialogue in action. Escena X has now begun using these skills to engage students in prevention of gender violence.

2. In 15 Minutes

In order to contribute to the sustainability of ArtCorps’ work, Antonietta is training 10 members of Oxfam’s field staff to create and present 15-minute plays about violence prevention throughout the country in the municipalities where they work. This will give Oxfam partners hands-on experience applying creative tools in their programming.

3. Community Theater

Community theater groups are comprised of your neighbors, your aunt Maria, your best friend Angelica and your third grade teacher. They are amateurs who do theater because they love it, and they are able to act in a public sphere because community theater groups are inclusive and open to everyone and anyone who wants to participate. Antonietta is working with Escena X to help them strengthen skills that will allow them to develop community theater groups in the places that they work. These skills include singing, vocal techniques, choreography, rhythm, clowning, humor, understanding the collective history of Salvadoran communities.

2011 Planned Initiatives

Due to the success of this pilot, in 2011 ArtCorps will be continuing its partnership with Oxfam America to bring theater into the programming of grassroots organization Asociación Agropecuaria Salvadoreña (AGROSAL). AGROSAL’s principal goal is to improve agricultural production and food security. In addition to farming and livestock programs, AGROSAL promotes healthier communities through workshops and trainings that empower and educate the families of its members. In 2005, AGROSAL joined forces with Oxfam America and three other development and women’s rights organizations to address the vulnerability of women in El Salvador. This gender-based violence prevention network challenges the government to provide better protection; trains and mobilizes women and men to change the machista culture in the country; and raises public consciousness through the media, street theatre and other public events. In 2011, AGROSAL and Oxfam America will be implementing Saving for Change, a community finance program that will further empower women by providing them access to savings and loan services.

ArtCorps will focus on four areas during the three-year collaboration with AGROSAL and Oxfam America: developing agents of change; transferring technical skills and knowledge; developing critical and creative thinking; and mobilizing people to action. These initiatives include:

  • Building the capacity of staff members and youth to use theater to raise awareness about and engage communities in preventing violence against women and developing healthy relationships.
  • Strengthening the Saving for Change program by providing innovative training tools to educate women about financial management, business strategy and civic engagement.
  • Developing the creative facilitation skills of Ponchinoto, a group of five local youth artists, who will support the integration of the arts into AGROSAL’s programming.

Stay tuned for the next update from ArtCorps Artist Naphtali Fields, the artist who will be leading this project in 2011.


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Organization Information

Creative Action Institute

Location: Ipswich, MA - USA
Website: http:/​/​
Project Leader:
Louisa Trackman
Ipswich, MA United States

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Combined with other sources of funding, this project raised enough money to fund the outlined activities and is no longer accepting donations.

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