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Supporting Actors For Dramatic Change: Ethiopian Radio Listener Groups

Jun 04, 2021

Since our founding, Population Media Center (PMC) has cast itself as a reliable co-star with the creative talent, mission-driven professionals, and government agencies of Ethiopia. When the National Service Radio of Ethiopia aired our first drama in 2002, it got a five-star rating from millions of listeners, who tuned in regularly, making it an overwhelming hit. At the time, the average woman in Ethiopia had over five children in her lifetime, and just 6% of married women used modern contraception.

Since then, our writers and actors have created dozens of sequel projects — multiple radio dramas, popular call-in talk shows, children’s books, and even a stage play, acted out under the lights of the capital city of Addis Ababa. Pleasingly, as the pages of this story have turned to the present day, use of modern contraception by married women has increased to over 40%. Average fertility has decreased 20%, with women in some areas averaging only 3 children. These stats signal a welcome plot twist for the women and girls of Ethiopia, who have long suffered under high desired family size norms, patriarchal oppression, and a culture of violence.

The Next Chapter

In 2019, the United Nation’s Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) raised serious concerns about Ethiopia to the UN General Assembly. They railed against “the persistence of adverse cultural norms, practices, and traditions as well as patriarchal attitudes and deep-rooted stereotypes regarding the roles, responsibilities, and identities of women and men in all spheres of life.” Violence against women, especially harmful practices including female genital mutilation, early marriage, and the abduction of girls are major contributors to Ethiopia’s unacceptable reality.

Meanwhile, with support from the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), PMC and our Ethiopian community partners continue to flip the script. Late last year, we launched Nekakat (“Cracked”), a 156-episode melodrama that is radio broadcasting in multiple states through 2022. The concerns raised by CEDAW have constituted a script of sorts for Nekakat, which is designed to emotionally impact listeners — and thereby change perceptions, attitudes, and behaviors — on the issues of gender-based violence, female genital mutilation, child marriage, and family planning.

Audience Feedback Loop

To enhance the social impact of Nekakat, PMC put out the call for community members to join Radio Listener Groups. These groups are exactly what you might imagine. Members of the community come together in a public space, listen to the episodes, and then discuss what they have heard. To date, we have been able to organize over 40 listener groups in broadcast areas. This speaks to the high ratings and general excitement of Ethiopians about the show.

The benefits of these groups are considerable. They help our teams gauge how well we are writing the story, using listener feedback for plotting improvements. They organically strengthen the connection between the audience and issues being dramatized, as peer-to-peer group discussions explore how the community could evolve in response to the various role models in the story. Finally, they also work to expand the messages and perspectives within the show to families, neighbors, schools, and marketplaces.

Importantly, the groups are often asked to identify the most liked and disliked characters in the story. For the Nekakat listener groups, one of the most popular characters so far is a young woman named Mulu who opposes an early and forced marriage arranged for her by her family. Since Ethiopia is home to 15 million child brides and has one of the world’s highest rates of early marriage, the popularity of this character gives us a critical perspective: just because something is a social norm, does not mean most people really agree with it deep in their hearts. Similarly, a character named Begashaw is universally disliked. Selfish and known for his aggressive behavior, he believes in male supremacy and constantly undermines his wife in the story. It’s little wonder this character is unpopular, considering he is all too representative of ongoing challenges to the emancipation of women and girls across Ethiopia. And, until that transformation is complete, it is very unlikely that Ethiopia’s significant contributions to global population growth will abate.

It has been proven over and over again — women must be free to decide when to have children, and how many, before average fertility declines enough to stop population growth. Hopefully, the unpopularity of Begashaw foreshadows a bright new future for gender equality in the hearts and minds of all Ethiopians.

PMC’s Theory of Change — our script for social and global transformation — is predicated on a dramatic idea: even the most damaging, deeply rooted social norms can be changed. The progress that Ethiopia has made over the last 20 years is a testament to the resiliency and determination of Ethiopians to lead better, healthier lives. PMC is a huge fan of this amazing country and looks forward to entertaining a new, more progressive reality with the Ethiopian people as time goes on. From hit dramas that fill the national airwaves with buzz and excitement, to small, thoughtful listener groups that help perfect storylines, we are always taking our cues from our audiences. They really are, after all, the stars of the show.