Participatory Theater Empowers Women: Evidence from India

Authors: Karla Hoff, Jyotsna Jalan, Sattwik Santra

ABSTRACT: Domestic violence is common, costly, yet widely accepted. Neither legal prohibition nor economic growth can stop it. Can participatory theater – a novel, cultural intervention – make it socially unacceptable? Community-based participatory theater gives communities the means, in fictional but nonetheless familiar situations, of analyzing oppression, interrogating the oppressors, rehearsing resistance, and negotiating standards of behavior. This paper is the first large-scale impact evaluation. We use an endogenous treatment model and a random sample of over 3,000 married couples in West Bengal, India to estimate the impact on domestic violence of village exposure to Jana Sanskriti, one of the world’s largest participatory theater organizations. We find that it reduced physical abuse by a quarter and reduced by half the proportion of husbands who viewed wife beating as legitimate. By motivating individuals to rescript stories of oppression and rethink their collective representations of domestic violence and masculinity, participatory theater triggered durable social change.