Sunday, July 6, 2014

Yegna: The radio show that’s making friends in Ethiopia

Roxanne Escobales went to see how Yegna is helping Ethiopian girls overcome the daily challenges they face
In a simple home on a dirt road in the lakeside city of Bahir Dar, a teenage girl has high hopes for the future. In itself this is not extraordinary, until the story of her past emerges.
Ager Aman is only 17 but she's been married twice - the first time at the age of three, then again at 10. Her son, Aboker, is four, and because she gave birth at such an early age she's being treated for ongoing internal complications. She now lives at her parents' home, sharing a room with her sisters and niece.
One reason for her hope is Yegna, a radio drama and talk show created by Girl Hub that's about to start its second series.
Yemsrach Dessalagn, who lives just a few miles away from Ager, embodies what Yegna is trying to achieve. The 20-year-old geography and environmental studies student feels lucky that her life has been very different to Ager's.
Yemsrach was the first member of her family to go to university, but her story could easily have been the same as Ager's. One of her childhood friends was married at the age of 12, but by staying in school Yemsrach was able to develop the friendships that helped her avoid the same path.
"It's because I didn't have friends that made facing those problems so difficult," says Ager. "When you have friends you can ask them about certain issues and they can share what they know. Even if they don't know, at least they can listen to you and support you."

Isolating the problem

Research by the Population Council has found that one in five girls in Ethiopia report having no friends at all - and that rises to more than one in four for married girls.
"Fifty-two per cent of women aged 18 to 49 in the Amhara region were married by the age of 15*," says Jillian Popkins, country director of Girl Hub Ethiopia. "Once they marry it's quite likely they will never have contact with their peer group or their family."
"During the research for Yegna we met a girl in Gondar who married at 12 and had her first child at 14. She told us she sees her mother once a year," adds Jillian. "When you hear stories like that you start to understand where that Population Council statistic comes from."

Entertaining change

Yegna, which means "ours" in Amharic, is a radio drama about five girls who form a pop band. The five members are all very different characters, created using insights from  extensive research with Ethiopian girls: there's the confident "princess" type; the swaggering street girl with a heart of gold; the studious, mousey girl who grows through the encouragement of her band-mates; the caring, maternal figure; and the bubbly organiser whose home life is marred by violence.
The weekly radio drama, broadcast on Sundays, features the characters coming together and overcoming challenges that mirror those facing girls every day in Ethiopia - staying in school, accessing economic assets and avoiding violence, early marriage and pregnancy - all of which make it more difficult for them to make friends.
A talk show airs immediately after the drama, discussing the issues of each episode in more depth. Guests during the first series included prominent journalists Tsehav Teferedegn and Behegu Meseret as well as the choreographer Adissu Demissie.
Since launching in April the show has captured the imagination of Ethiopia's youth. The video for one of the songs from the show, called  Abet, has been watched more than 500,000 times online, making it one of the top 10 most viewed Ethiopian videos of all time.
"Yegna is a world in which girls can learn what it means to be a good friend," says Jillian from Girl Hub Ethiopia. "Those themes are then taken from the drama into the talk show to create a very safe way for girls to talk about their own experiences. So they can talk about the characters rather than what's happening to a sister or a neighbour.
"If you can create connections between girls and enable them to come together and learn new skills, that can help them succeed more in school and give them a friendship network they can lean on throughout life to succeed."

Changing attitudes

More than 500 young Ethiopians have volunteered as  Yegna ambassadors. Their role is to organise listening parties where young people come together to hear the drama and talk about what they've heard. Even this simple act of bringing girls together can create friendships among girls.
One of those ambassadors is Yemsrach. "People's attitudes need to change in my region because women are dominated by men," she says at one of the listening parties. "Parents choose when girls marry and I want to change that."
At a listening party organised by the ambassadors at Bahir Dar City High School, 18-year-old Elsabet praised Yegna for its uplifting spirit, saying: "Yegna means so much to me because it gives me hope. It's about girls' issues and these are things we should be talking about. I like the music best, but the drama is good too."

Uniting for girls

Yegna also reaches out to men, boys and other gatekeepers in girls' lives. The aim is "to create a change of attitudes and behaviour towards girls," says Jillian.
One of the male ambassadors, 21-year-old journalism student Hailemikael Debissa, says that the Abet CD (one of the songs from the show) has been copied and shared among his friends. He loves the song so much that he organised for a van with large speakers on its roof to play it at a  nearby rural market.

"The issue of girls is our own issue," he says. "Men are the main actors, especially for these problems. In order to teach the girls, first we have to create awareness in men. We can't divide the issue by the sexes."
Back on the dirt road, Ager Aman hopes that with initiatives such as Yegna, the next generation of Ethiopian girls will take a different, easier path towards realising their potential.
"I can help my son have a future, and I want to be able to send him to school," she says. "I also want my niece Leyla to go to school, and achieve things that any other girl can achieve. We can look at the past and learn from it, and we're going to make it happen."