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Let’s talk about sex: using radio to educate teenagers in Bangladesh

Gourob Kundu

Our world is home to 1.8 billion young people. The majority of these 10 to 24-year-olds live in Asia, with 48 million alone growing up in Bangladesh.  

And many of these young people are having sex. Bangladesh has one of the highest adolescent fertility rates in all of South Asia, coming in at 83 births per 1000 women aged 15 to 19. This is compared to a figure of 71 for Afghanistan and Nepal, which share the next highest adolescent birth rate in the region. In the US, this number stands at 21, in the UK, 14.

In Bangladesh, this high birth rate is driven by girls getting married before they’ve left adolescence. Nearly three quarters of married Bangladeshi women become wives before turning 18 – compared to fewer than 3% of men. Media Action carried out research with adolescents, parents and teachers to better understand why. 

Outside of everyone’s comfort zone

We found that children and adults alike struggle to talk about sexual and reproductive health (SRH) in Bangladesh, as is the case in many conservative countries.

Teenagers are embarrassed to seek out advice from their elders, due to social stigma and shyness. We also learned that parents don’t start these conversations either – aside from the heart-to-hearts mothers have with their daughters about periods.

SRH is a taboo topic, which parents feel is inappropriate to bring up with adolescents before they get married. Our research revealed that adults believe that telling teenagers about contraceptives promotes promiscuity.

As for teachers, they are often evasive and are known to sometimes skip the chapters on sexual and reproductive health in textbooks. Those we interviewed said they faced social barriers in discussing sex with students of the opposite gender to themselves. They also didn’t feel properly supported by their colleagues and management to have these kinds of conversations.

Educators are also discouraged by students’ reluctance to discuss sex with them in the classroom. Some NGOs run SRH programmes in schools but teenagers we spoke with said that these paint an incomplete picture of what they need to know.

Recognising these issues, the government of Bangladesh has begun to step up its efforts to improve knowledge of SRH for all young Bangladeshis by providing universal access to information and services. Girls are being taught how to make choices about marriage, sex and childbirth. But this isn’t enough.

Getting the lowdown

Adolescents are unsurprisingly hungry to know more about the experiences they all have, but which are never spoken about.

This is where the radio show Dosh Unisher Mor (Crossroads at 10 to 19) comes in. Combining drama, songs and interviews with both experts and ordinary teenagers, Dosh Unisher Mor aimed to give young people the comprehensive lowdown on SRH they crave. 

The show helped teenagers come to terms with the physical and psychological changes that go with puberty, by presenting these as natural and nothing to be ashamed of. Adolescent listeners said they learned new things from the show, particularly about the physical changes they were experiencing. For example, the programme corrected the mistaken belief, held by many of the boys we spoke to, that wet dreams are a disease.

The show also helps adolescents realise just how traumatic early marriage can be for girls. Listeners came to understand that getting pregnant at a young age puts mothers – and their babies – at risk of health complications and even death.

Some explicitly said that Dosh Unisher Mor led them to see early marriage as a damaging social convention they had the responsibility to protest against. One girl was even driven to stop a child marriage from happening – telling her parents about it, who in turn informed the police.

Filling the information gap through entertainment

Teenagers appreciated that Dosh Unisher Mor was not only educational, but also entertaining. They saw it as a show with the power to change attitudes and influence people by facilitating open and natural discussions, informed by detailed and comprehensive explanations.

As for parents, many said the show encouraged them and their children to speak more openly about these issues. Though we did interview some who explicitly said they were happier for their children to listen to Dosh Unisher Mor than have to have an embarrassing conversation!

Clearly there’s still a real information deficit to fill around SRH and early marriage in Bangladesh. Yet our adolescent listeners told us that Dosh Unisher Mor was the only radio show out there exclusively focused on SRH. This shouldn’t be the case. Shows like Dosh Unisher Mor have so much to offer young people and there should be more programmes out there like it.

Gourob Kundu is a development professional with a background in qualitative research, specifically in the areas of public health and communication.

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