We all need positive role models. We need individuals whose life story could be our own story. We need people whom we can learn from, people who have fought and won the same battles that we fight every day. We need role models who have triumphed over the kind of intolerance and injustice that we ourselves have confronted. We learn from people like us who have managed to change their lives, and who, in so doing, have helped family and friends.
While the need for role models is universal, the need is particularly acute in developing countries that suffer from gender inequality and social practices that deny girls and women fulfilling lives.
At the Population Media Center, we provide women and men in the developing world with the role models and information needed to change harmful behaviours, whether it be teen pregnancy, child marriage, FGM, or unsafe sex. We do it by producing long-running radio or television serial dramas, otherwise known as “soap operas.”
In every country where we work, we hire local directors, producers, scriptwriters, and actors. We secure the necessary funding and provide the methodology and professional training needed to produce an effective “soap opera for social change.”
Everything, including the plotline, is authentically home-grown.
Wherever we work, we promote values, human rights, or social norms that have been officially accepted by the government, but which have not been embraced at the community level. We actually develop a protocol that formally sets out what we aim to achieve and then we work to achieve it.
Changing deeply rooted beliefs and social practices does not come easy, but with the right approach, transformational change is possible. We use the Sabido methodology, an approach developed more than three decades ago by Miguel Sabido, then vice president of Televisa in Mexico. Based upon the social learning theory put forward by Albert Bandura, the renowned Stanford University psychologist, the Sabido methodology uses long-running, prime-time soap operas to develop highly popular “transitional” characters who are torn between negative and positives influences in their lives. The audience learns from the lives and experiences of these transitional characters. They learn that abandoning old stereotypes and harmful social practices can be beneficial to everyone in the village or community, women and men.
Our soap operas have aired in more than three dozen countries and in many cases they are the most popular radio or television program in the country. The success of these programs in changing attitudes and behaviors is well-documented by our extensive “pre” and “post” testing:
- In Ethiopia, where our radio programs reach about half the population, 63% of new health clinic clients seeking reproductive health services said they were listening to one of PMC’s dramas. Among married women who listened to Yeken Kignit and knew of a method of family planning, spousal communication about family planning issues climbed from 33% to 66%. Contraceptive use among listeners rose from 14% to 40%, and listeners were 5.4 times more likely than non-listeners to know of three or more family planning methods.
- In Nigeria, where early marriage and high rates of teen pregnancy have led to large numbers of obstetric fistulas, 54% of fistula clients cited Gugar Goge as the main motivation for seeking services. After we aired Ruwan Dare in the four northwest states of Nigeria, surveys showed that 67% of reproductive health clients cited our radio program as the motivation to visit the clinic.
While much of PMC’s work falls into the area of reproductive health, including prevention of HIV/AIDS, our programs have also shown great success in addressing other issues affecting women, including violence against women, FGM, and child trafficking.
Our programs are not a substitute for community-based programs, including the expansion of medical services, but in seeking to achieve transformational change at the country level, entertainment media can play an essential role, particularly when it comes to changing the attitudes and social norms that deprive girls—and women—of their right to lead healthy and fulfilling lives.
We like to think that we’re empowering girls and women, one “soap opera” at a time.
William N. Ryerson is Founder and President of Population Media Center (PMC), an organization that strives to improve the health and well-being of people around the world through the use of entertainment-education strategies. He also serves as Chair and CEO of The Population Institute in Washington, DC, which works in partnership with Population Media Center. Mr. Ryerson has a 42-year history of working in the field of reproductive health, including 25 years of experience adapting the Sabido methodology of social change communications to various cultural settings worldwide. The emphasis of PMC’s work is to educate people about the benefits of small families, encourage the use of effective family planning methods, elevate women’s status, prevent exploitation of children, and promote avoidance of HIV infection.