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On the way up to the highest volcano near San Salvador, students at the El Progresso School gather in the main yard for an unusual event. As the school bell rings, students watch as Little Red Riding Hood emerges from a room, and shouts “Hey, learn to say no!” The children are transfixed by the lively character as she dashes about. A flute and a drum roll accompany her movements.
As in every good story, there is suddenly an element of evil. At the sound of a growl, Little Red Riding Hood freezes. The wolf has been lying in wait behind her:
"Ah, little girl, where are you going?” asks the wolf.
"I'm on my way to my grandma's house,” she innocently replies.
"And why are you all alone?” persists the wolf, gnashing his teeth as if savoring his innocent prey.
"Because my mommy and daddy have taught me to take care of myself,” says Little Red Riding Hood.
Fairytales reflect reality
The performance is part of the “Ruta del Arte,” an innovative program designed to teach young people about gender-based violence and how to prevent it. It was created by the Escena X theatre troupe, which is working with the Salvadoran Women’s Association, with funds from Oxfam America. All are part of the Campaign for the Prevention of Gender Violence, initiated by Oxfam America and several other civil society organizations in El Salvador in 2005.
This innocent fairytale is not so magical for many children who are bullied, or are victims of gender-based violence in El Salvador. María Enma Landaverde from the Santa Tecla Women's Association is convinced that social violence is rooted in domestic and other forms of violence in Salvadoran society, and that it is important to teach children to stand up for themselves and understand when they are being abused.
The fairytale continues with Little Red Riding Hood being harassed by the wolf and a woodcutter, who are offering gifts to try to persuade her to go with them.
"If you come with me I'll give you a cell phone,” the wolf says to her.
"I'll give you a DVD,” promises the woodcutter.
But Little Red Riding Hood refuses their offers. The entire audience backs her up, telling her not to let them touch her.
Leaning against one of the pillars of the school building is Juana Silvia Flores de Domínguez, vice principal of El Progresso School. She is already familiar with the nationwide Campaign for the Prevention of Gender-Based Violence, its motto: "Between you and me...a different life."
"Here, gangs are less of a problem than domestic violence, and families neglecting their children. Some of the kids come to school unwashed, wearing dirty clothes, and hungry...” she says of the kindergarten and first grade children. "We also have cases of girls who come in with bruises on them, and when the teacher asks how they got them, they say that their fathers hit them."
With the help of the students, Little Red Riding Hood resists the wolf and woodcutter’s advances and discusses some issues raised with her audience.
"What sort of violence are we talking about?” Little Red Riding Hood asks a boy, about 10-years-old.
"Physical violence,” he answers.
"If someone touches our private parts, what sort of violence are we talking about?” she asks. "Sexual violence!" her audience replies in unison, demonstrating that the children are learning the lessons.
The Art Route will continue its awareness-raising program over the next six months and reach more than 50,000 children and adolescents in 57 schools.