Talking about sexual health in Ethiopia

Young Ethiopians gather to listen to health radio show Abugida

Frrom 2006-2010, a pioneering radio programme for young people helped to break the silence about sexual health issues in Ethiopia by bringing taboo subjects to the fore.

Sexual health is a major issue for young people in Ethiopia, but a lack of access to information and knowledge of the issues as well as some traditional attitudes towards gender and sex make it hard for young people to make informed choices about their personal health.

According to the UNFPA's 2010 Ethiopia Gender Survey, 42% of girls in rural areas experience sexual initiation before their first period, and the culture of early marriage can lead to problems of fistula, stillbirth and low-birth weights from early pregnancy.

From 2006, magazine-style radio show Abugida, meaning 'A,B,C, D' in Amharic, provided almost 2 million young people with a space for frank and informed discussion. At the same time its sister show Dawwiitii Dargaggootaa or "mirror of youth" in Oromifa, broadcasted to a wider audience in the Oromia region. 

Lack of information

"There's so many misconceptions about sex in Ethiopia," said Elsabet Samuel, producer of the Abugida show. "I recently met a girl who was beaten by her parents because she started menstruating. They thought it meant that she had started having sex."

Despite decades of health campaigns, Samuel said misinformation is at the root of the problem.

"Conversations just don't happen" she said. "Mothers are too embarrassed to talk to their daughters, girls are shy, even friends don’t talk about it."

Another Abugida producer, Frehiwot Guangul, explained that people need more than just information. "What they really need is communications skills."

"They need to learn how to talk about sex, how to talk to their parents, negotiate with their partners, talk about contraception."

Let’s talk about it

The shows included personal testimonies, drama, music and humour to cover a range of sexual health issues from HIV and AIDS to female circumcision, and use of contraception.

For some, it made a lasting difference.

"Abugida has helped and encouraged me to make some very important decisions. The radio programme has inspired me to discuss sexual and reproductive health with my friends at school and even with my parents" says 17-year-old Sefa Jemal.

"I was overjoyed when my mother declared that she had decided not to have my sisters circumcised after all [after listening to the programme]. She asked me to record Abugida for her every week."

More than radio

Abugida engaged with its audience both on and off-air.

At its peak, 120 listeners clubs were running across Ethiopia in collaboration with local NGOs. In these groups around a dozen young people would gather to listen to Abugida and Dawwiitii Dargaggootaa and discuss the issues with a facilitator.

The programme team also built partnerships with Ethiopian schools to broadcast 15 minute versions of the shows during school break times.

One member of a listening group, 17-year-old Desta, says the show has managed to break the silence and adds that the conversations spread further than the group itself: "Even in our family we are beginning to talk more, to have the courage to talk about condoms and the opposite sex that we didn’t have before."

Thirty public service announcements and mini dramas about a range of sexual and reproductive health issues were also broadcast in Amharic and Oromifa between 2006-2008.

Understanding audiences

BBC Media Action trained local researchers to carry out 2,400 face-to-face interviews and 44 focus groups with 15-24-year-olds across Ethiopia.

Different show formats were tested on people in both rural and urban areas. The findings played a central role in helping the production team to refine ideas, and clarify messages.

The value of this formative research was demonstrated in 2010 when Abugida was named mass media communicator of the year in the 4th annual pan-African awards for strategic HIV and AIDS communication.

Robert Ritzenthaler of Family Health International (FHI) and one of the judging panel said: "This is an exceptionally well-designed and executed programme. The audience is defined and understood, the messages are highly relevant, and components are in place to evaluate impact.

"This is what a winning programme should look like. Other communicators can learn from it" he added.

BBC Media Action worked in partnership with Radio Ethiopia, Ethiopian health workers, community leaders and non-governmental organisations.

Radio Ethiopia, the state broadcaster, was a key partner in the initiative. Every six months four Radio Ethiopia producers worked on the programmes, developing their skills and contributing ideas.

Further afield, BBC Media Action trained 90 Ethiopian journalists and 60 non-governmental organisation staff about how to communicate sexual and reproductive health issues to young people.

An advisory panel was established to review the sexual and reproductive health messages contained in programming and to ensure their relevance to the target audience.

Members of the panel included representatives of Ethiopia's Ministry of Youth and Sports, Ministry of Health, Oromiya Health Bureau, HIV/AIDS Prevention and Control Office, Ethiopian Women Lawyers Association, Kembatta Women Development, Family Guidance Association Ethiopia and UNAIDS.

Abugida has helped and encouraged me to make some very important decisions. The programme has inspired me to discuss sexual health with my friends and even with my parents

Abugida listener, Sefa Jemal

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