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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Theater raises the issue

Theater raises the issue

OU RANG OV, Kampong Cham - Tackling serious social issues like domestic violence

is not the usual aim of Ayai performances. The traditional Khmer theater usually

provides light stories with music, comedy and improvised banter.

However, a new Ayai tour telling of one woman's escape from her abusive husband is

changing that. And judging by the large, enthusiastic crowd on the Feb 15 opening,

audiences are receptive to the message. "Come down here!... I want to fight

you, you are a bad man," shouted one teenage boy, incensed by a scene of the

husband hitting his wife with a stick.

The tour organizers - the Ministry of Women's Affairs and the Project Against Domestic

Violence (PADV) - claimed that 30,000 were attending the performances each night.

Crowd members said they were drawn by the fame of actor/playwright Prom Manh, but

most also knew the play's theme.

"We have been delighted by the response," said Louisa Norman, a PADV technical

adviser. "It has been remarkable watching whole communities responding, laughing

and crying along with the story."

A public awareness team from PADV and Women's Affairs is also touring, contacting

NGOs and officials for support during each performance. Before the show, a team member

speaks about domestic violence and where to find local help.

Drawing on the improvisational tradition of Ayai, the outcome of the play is variable.

The heroine will get away from her abusive husband each time, but the action she

takes will be dependent on the real-life services in the area.

"I was happy to write this kind of story [for PADV] in order to stop the violence

that we have a lot of in Cambodia," Prom Manh told the Post. "Anger causes

damage... stop the anger," he sang onstage.

PADV research indicates that one in six women is subject to domestic violence here,

and that culturally, wife-beating is often viewed as a normal family problem, not

to be interfered with or talked about.

The theater tour aims to challenge that mindset. "We want to tell the audience

to wake up, not just to keep quiet. We want them to discuss domestic violence openly,"

said actress You Sok Sothea, who plays the battered wife.

The tour is visiting villages in Battambang, Banteay Meanchey, Siem Reap and Kampong

Thom, with a possible final show in Phnom Penh on March 29.

The Women's Media Center plans to base a TV production on the play and is also making

a documentary about domestic violence, including reactions to the play from abused

women, local authorities and the general public. The films - which will be screened

nationally and internationally later in the year - and the tour are being funded

by the Asia Foundation.

One elderly theatergoer, who acknowledged spousal abuse was a problem in his village,

thought the play would decrease violence "by about 80 percent". Noting

the dastardly husband got arrested in the end, he said: "After [wife-beaters]

watch that play, they will be thinking about what could happen to them."

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