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Soap Operas: Making a Difference in Developing Nations

Since the dawn of radio and television, entertainment media has been helping to shape social behaviors around the globe, many would argue for the worse. But in a growing number of developing nations, entertainment media in the form of serial dramas or soap operas, are making a positive contribution. Specially-designed programming is helping people develop a better understanding of issues like family planning, reproductive health, violence against women, and prevention of HIV/AIDS.

One of the advantages of using soap operas, as opposed to documentaries or single-episode dramas, is that they actually reach the intended audience. They also allow time for the listeners and viewers to form bonds with the characters and allow the characters to evolve gradually in their thinking and behavior. The audience, in other words, follows along and learns--as the characters on the program do--about sensitive medical and social issues.

Next to peers and parents, role models from the mass media are of special importance in shaping cultural attitudes and behavior. Radio and television soap operas in Brazil, Ethiopia, India, Kenya, Mali, Mexico, Niger, Nigeria, Rwanda, St. Lucia, and Tanzania have been shown by independent researchers to change audience attitudes and behavior with regard to HIV/AIDS avoidance and use of family planning.

The Population Media Center (PMC), one of the pioneers in the field, uses what is called the Sabido Method. Named after the creator of this entertainment-education strategy, Miguel Sabido, the Sabido Method is based on character development and plot lines that provide the audience with a range of characters that they can engage with — some good, some not so good — and follow as they evolve and change. Sabido developed this methodology when he was Vice President for Research at Televisa in Mexico in the 1970s.

Change is the key to the Sabido methodology. Characters may begin the series exhibiting the opposite of the values being taught, but through interaction with other characters and twists and turns in the plot, they learn and come to recognize the value of positive social behavior.

Currently active in 17 developing countries, PMC first reaches initial agreement with the relevant government ministries and the broadcast system regarding a plan of action for development of a media campaign. After reaching agreement on the goals and objectives, PMC works with the local entertainment industry to recruit a country representative, producers, scriptwriters, and actors, and then begins development of an appropriate storyline.

Tanzania. The most extensive evaluation of the effects of a social content serial drama occurred from 1993 to 1997 in Tanzania. A serial drama broadcast by Radio Tanzania attracted 58% of the population (age 15 to 45) in the broadcast areas. By design, in one region of the country, the area surrounding the city of Dodoma, a music program was heard instead of the serial drama during the first two years of the project. Then the serial drama was broadcast in its entirety in the Dodoma area. Independent research by the University of New Mexico and the Population Family Life Education Programme of the Government of Tanzania measured the effects caused by the program with regard to such issues as AIDS prevention behavior, ideal age of marriage for women, and use of family planning.

Nationwide surveys showed a significant increase in the percentage of listeners in the broadcast areas who believed that they were vulnerable to HIV infection; an increase in the belief that audience members, rather than their deity or fate, can determine how many children they will have; and an increase in the percentage of respondents who approve of family planning. Importantly, the research showed a very significant increase in family planning use and a reduction in fertility rate only where the program was broadcast.

Ethiopia. PMC is now in its ninth year working in Ethiopia, where it produced a radio serial drama, Yeken Kignit ("Looking Over One's Daily Life"), which was broadcast over Radio Ethiopia in 257 episodes between June 2, 2002 and November 27, 2004. Yeken Kignit addressed issues of reproductive health and women's status, including HIV/AIDS, family planning, marriage by abduction, education of daughters, spousal communication and related issues. The Ethiopian program attracted nearly half of the country's population into its audience on a regular basis.

After 2 and ½ years, an independent evaluation of the impact of the program showed significant differences in the knowledge and behavior change measures between listeners and non-listeners of Yeken Kignit. During that time, the fertility rate in Amharic speaking areas fell from 5.4 to 4.3 children per woman and demand for contraceptives increased 157%. Listeners to Yeken Kignit were 5 times more likely than non-listeners to know 3 or more family planning methods.

Male listeners to the program also sought HIV tests at four times the rate of non-listeners, female listeners at three times the rate of non-listeners. There was also a 52 percentage point increase among men in recognition of the importance of girls' education.