Women watching a man and woman perform a theater scene in a classroom

Women watch a performance of magnet theater, which helps empower sex workers to protect themselves.

Interactive theater helps sex workers in India find ways to protect themselves from HIV and violence

The building is plain, the doorway unmarked, and the stairway dim and narrow. But something extraordinary is going on inside. Here, in Chittoor, India, lives are being changed and women are finding ways to protect themselves.

Nearly 100 women of all ages, some with their small children, are gathered in a room. They’re dazzling in their brightly colored saris of canary yellow, sunset pink, the deepest reds and purples, smiling, talking, laughing. It might look like some kind of neighborhood meeting, but it’s much more. These women are united by some of life’s most difficult circumstances and by their vulnerability to HIV, which has already claimed the lives of so many of their friends.

The women are all commercial sex workers, often discriminated against and looked down upon in their society. In a country where a quarter of the population struggles to live on less than US$1 a day, their stories are tragically similar—histories of abuse, abandonment, desperate poverty. Survival for them and their children depends on working in brothels, but the work puts them at high risk for contracting HIV.

Still from video about magnet theater

Magnet theater helps communities question social norms that may contribute to the HIV epidemic.

PATH is using a unique approach to help these women come together in a safe space, away from the outside world, and find solutions to protect themselves. Called “magnet theater,” the lively interactive skits performed by volunteer actors depict real-life dilemmas and engage the audience to explore ways to reduce HIV risk.

Finding solutions for a familiar situation

As music blares from a boom box inside the upstairs room, a cast of ten PATH-trained community volunteers dances and twirls, pulling women in from the audience to join in the performance. Then the skit begins: A poor woman is being coerced into prostitution by her boyfriend to supplement their income. He brings his friends around and offers her to them. When she refuses, he beats her and shoves her to the ground.

The women watching are not surprised at this development. Some even laugh and exchange knowing nods—they are quite familiar with deprivation and physical violence.

Magnet theater is meant to spark thought. Once the woman in the skit has been bullied, the actors freeze. “What should the woman do?” a facilitator asks. Various audience members pop up to act out their solutions to her crisis: Plead with the man. Leave him. Hit him back. A few women look away, pain in their eyes.

But slowly, they begin to sort through the options and assure one another that they deserve to be safe from mistreatment and disrespect. They discuss how to say no, how to negotiate condom use, practice less risky forms of sex, access social services, and seek support from each other. A tentative sense of possibility emerges from their ideas, a sense that tomorrow might be better than today.

Group encourages self-empowerment

Magnet theater asks questions and allows the time and space to probe for solutions that come from within a community, rather than prescribing answers. Women can claim ownership of their choices and begin to make real and lasting change.

Man speaking to group of women, some carrying loads on their heads

Magnet theater in Kenya offers HIV-prevention messages in everyday scenes that people can relate to. Read the story.

Because of this careful process, the women “can now analyze the risks in their lives and make their own decisions,” explains Sam Masam, a PATH HIV/AIDS program manager. “That kind of self-empowerment really happens when they come together this way as a group.”

This special, private setting where the women meet is crucial to the success of reaching them. It “allows them to be open because they are in their own community,” Masam says. “They are safe. They can open up about their problems because they have the confidence that the information they share doesn’t go out of these four walls. That makes them more comfortable.”

Together, the women begin to find inner strength and renewed self-respect. From this valuable foundation, they can organize, save money, and build new lives free from the risk of HIV.

Photos, from top: PATH/Satvir Malhotra, PATH, Wendy Stone.