AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, Saturday, March 19, 2005.
ADI MUSA, Eritrea (AFP) - At the end of a dirt track around a stage on the village square here outside Asmara, about 100 Eritreans impatiently await a public performance about a once taboo subject.
The crowd, which includes many young children, bristles with anticipation as actors from the National Union of Eritrean Youth and Students appear on the dias for a play that aims to promote debate over the controversial practice of female genital mutilation (FGM).
In a country where government statistics show that as of 2002, 89 percent of women have been circumcised, reactions are palpable as the performance -- a comedy that tells the story of a young married couple with an infant daughter -- begins.
The audience erupts in giggles frequently as the actors, using a script they themselves wrote, go through the familiar trials and tribulations of early parenthood.
But when the moment of truth arrives, the crowd becomes serious. Should the the parents circumcise their daughter or not? The students pose the question to the crowd.
Immediately a man cries out: "If the girls are not circumcised, they always want to go out with boys!"
"No!" a woman retorts, "FGM is not good, the girls lose a lot of blood!"
An elderly woman, draped in a traditional white shawl, said "culture must not change, we have received it from our fathers, and from our fathers' fathers. If it's wrong, why did they do it?"
Female circumcision, which continues to be performed widely despite an international outcry and laws against it in many countries, can range from the stitching up of young girls' vaginas to the excision of the clitoris.
On stage in Adi Musa, the student actors explain the dangers of the practice: that the baby can die during the operation and that circumcised women suffer during sexual relations.
This launches another round of rousing responses from the audience most of whom are intimately familiar with the practice which although opposed by the Eritrean government is widely done by women in their homes in both Muslim and Christian communities.
The play project, which started a month ago, is funded by the British embassy in Asmara and is the brainchild of Helen Bowen, a Briton who works for the Voluntary Service Overseas.
"I wanted a project which presented it in an attractive way," she said. "I wanted people to be relaxed to talk about this."
Here, Bowen appears to have achieved her goal: the play clearly sparked animated discussion with the elderly tending to defend FGM and younger people rejecting it.
Although after the debate it is unclear whether minds have been changed, it is certain the play has provoked excited, if not always thoughtful, argument.
Genet Tesfagergica, 50, dismisses the cautionary tale told on stage, informing a reporter that all three of her three daughters have been circumcised.
"It's cultural," she says. "I did it at home, nothing happened, it's not dangerous."
But Sirak Gebremichael, a 20-year-old man, disputes this reasoning.
"You say it's cultural, but you accept some modern things by abandoning some parts of the ancient culture, so why don't you stop FGM also," he says.
"If I have a daughter, I won't get her circumcised," Sirak says. "I'm not angry against those who do it, but I want to tell them it's bad.
"I think one day in Eritrea, ideas will evolve and there will be no more FGM."
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