Vermont company’s soap operas promote change

November 30, 2010 • Serial Dramas, Radio Serial Dramas, PMC in the News

Below is an article on PMC that ran in the November 30, 2010 edition of The Burlington Free Press.

Vermont company’s soap operas promote change
By Tim Johnson

Tihitena is in labor and in extreme pain. She pleads with the attending midwife to take her to the hospital, but her tradition-bound husband, Gashaw, will have none of it. He insists on a home birth.

TIHITENA: Oh, I can’t stand it any more! My God! Why won’t you take me to the hospital?

MIDWIFE: Are you afraid? Be brave, woman. Don’t forget that I have helped countless women safely deliver their babies.

GASHAW: She’s just putting on a show!

MIDWIFE: Please, Gashaw! How can you say that while she is in labor?

GASHAW: Well, that’s a fact. All of us respectable folks, haven’t we all been born at home?

Tihitena’s condition worsens, and only when she is near death (“I’m losing her,” cries the midwife, “Help! Help!”) does Gashaw relent. And only later, at the hospital, does she learn why her delivery was so extraordinarily difficult. The cause lay in a crude but culturally sanctioned form of surgery she had undergone as a child.

So runs one of the plot lines in “Sibrat,” a soap opera broadcast by Radio Ethiopia, two episodes each week over more than two years, concluding Feb. 3. Written and performed in Ethiopia’s official language, Amharic, “Sibrat” is a drama with a social message that stretches all the way back to a small office in Shelburne that happens to be an incubator of “edu-tainment” in more than a dozen countries across the globe.

Population Media Center, a nonprofit with an annual budget of about $4 million, aims to improve global well-being by sponsoring radio and TV serial dramas sprinkled with character role models who nudge audiences toward what the center calls “positive behavior change.” That change might come in the form of support for people with disabilities (Mali), or family planning (Nigeria), or HIV/AIDS prevention (Vietnam), or in the case of “Sibrat,” opposition to female genital mutilation/cutting, sometimes called female circumcision.

“Sibrat” is one of six projects the center has sponsored in Ethiopia over the past decade. (The above excerpt, from the 18th of the serial’s 226 episodes, is an English translation provided by the center.) Bill Ryerson, a reproductive-health specialist who founded the center in 1998, calls the overall work in Ethiopia “a role model for all PMC programs around the world.”

Soap operas, Sabido-style

Underpinning much of Population Media Center’s work is the Sabido method, a technique for delivering social messages through serial dramas. Miguel Sabido, a Mexican television executive, pioneered the strategy in the ’70s as a means of addressing sex, abortion family planning and other sensitive topics. Ryerson first heard of the Sabido method in 1976, when a colleague of his at the Population Institute reported on a telenovela produced by Sabido that promoted family planning.

Ryerson moved to Shelburne in 1981 to take a job as associate director of Planned Parenthood of Vermont. Five years later, he resumed working on international promotion of family planning.

“Over time, I followed with interest the results of Sabido-style programs in Mexico and India,” Ryerson said in an e-mail. “Then in the early 1990s, I established a study in Tanzania that scientifically measured a Sabido-style radio drama there, with treatment and control areas.”

The study’s findings blew Ryerson away.

Fifty-eight percent of the people surveyed had listened to the series. “Of them,” Ryerson recalled, “82 percent said they had changed behavior as a result of the program in order to avoid HIV infection. The most common change cited was reduction in the number of sexual partners. The second most common change was condom use.”

The results were so dramatic, Ryerson said, that “I decided to start Population Media Center to take the methodology worldwide.”

Why did he keep it in Shelburne?

“I gave 30 seconds of thought to locating the organization in New York or Washington,” Ryerson wrote, “but decided that the quality of life in Vermont would be an asset in attracting talent and that, with the Internet, the location of our headquarters was not that important.”

The Vermont office has about 10 employees, who focus mostly on fundraising (major grants have come from foundations and U.N. agencies) , communications, and support for activities overseas.

A wide audience

Female genital mutilation/cutting comes in several forms, including total or partial removal of the clitoris and other parts of female genitalia. In some traditional societies, this is a sociocultural convention believed to render young women clean, unpromiscuous and ready for marriage. A U.S. State Department human-rights report on Ethiopia, one of Africa’s most populous countries, cites a survey that found 74 percent of women and girls had been subjected to the practice.

The three writers of “Sibrat,” which means “trauma” in Amharic, prepared by spending more than a month in villages collecting real-life stories.

The soap opera ultimately has a happy ending of sorts. After many developments, Tihitena divorces Gashaw and eventually gets back together with Ephrem, her true love and a character who had figured into earlier episodes.

This story line and others in “Sibrat” apparently made a strong impression on listeners. An independent evaluation concluded that the drama raised awareness, sparked public dialogue, and even inspired action, according to the center. The evaluators visited 12 villages around the country and conducted more than 40 focus groups and 120 interviews.

“Two girls from Harwassa reported that they were able to rescue a girl child who was to be circumcised on her seventh day (after) birth by telling her mother all the negative consequences they learned from ‘Sibrat,’” the evaluative report stated.

Negussie Teffera, country representative for Ethiopia, heads an office with a staff of about 20. Of “Sibrat,” he said in an e-mail:

“It is estimated that out of the 80 million Ethiopian population, almost half listened to the program,” he said.

Asked if any of PMC’s serial dramas had come under attack overseas by opponents who portray them as First-World propaganda, Ryerson said they hadn’t, for several reasons.

As with “Sibrat,” the programs are based on the country’s own policies (female genital mutilation/cutting is illegal in Ethiopia) and on actual socio-cultural conditions. Beyond that, Ryerson said, the programs aren’t preachy.

“The programs never tell the audience how to behave,” Ryerson said.

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