If you had spent 21 years as a war refugee after birth, married against your will at age 13 to an opium addict whom you had to support by working 16 hours a day, even though he was constantly abusive and once tried to kill everyone in the family by burning down the house – and you were entrapped in a culture that did not permit your independence – what would you do?

This was the plight of an Afghan woman called Zahra, who courageously divorced her husband and started a new life with her children. Zahra is one of the many protagonists whose stories were brought to light and given a twist through the work of Hjalmar and his team at the Afghanistan Human Rights and Democracy Organization (AHRDO).

How does the organization manage to convince the chronically unfortunate that there is hope and make change happen? Like many social innovation initiatives, AHRDO takes the approach of empowerment. Instead of “helping” the distressed, it creates a platform for people to help one another and themselves.

Through a practice called “Theatre of the Oppressed”, the usually silenced victims find voice as they enact their own stories of oppression. The same story is performed twice. After learning about the situation in the first performance, the audience, if motivated to set things right, can intervene during the second performance and possibly change the outcome. The possibility of change transcends the play, and a good number of people have been empowered to try changing their actual circumstances. Theatre thus serves as a means to foster empathy, explore solutions and inspire action.

Recently, AHRDO has furthered its practice and spearheaded a process called “Legislative Theatre”, which activates public imagination for discussions on critical social issues. Thoughts are collected and become advocacies for legislation. Laws are yet to be made through such endeavours. Nonetheless, the way they heighten humanistic awareness demonstrates the potential of the arts in driving social change.

“Fear is the cheapest room in the house. I would like to see you living in better conditions.” Hjalmar shared this quote from the 14th-century Persian poet Hafiz. Listen to this true story about the power of empathy, creativity and courage in a zone of emergency: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-M7rYzeYNKM

Written by: Stephanie Cheung

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