July 19, 2007

HIV/AIDS and the media

Personal opinion BY KONDWANI MKANDAWIRE published in The Daily Times, Malawi;s web site

It is now almost 22 years since the first person was diagnosed with HIV in Malawi. Over these 22 years, the number of HIV positive people has risen to frightening levels.

Those that spearhead the fight against HIV/Aids have done research in a lot of areas with the intention of finding ways that can help slow down the spread of the disease. The results of the research have shown than the battle front is wider than anticipated. The skills and techniques to be used need to be up to date. One area that the HIV/Aids combatants have recently engaged is culture.

Malawi is a country with diverse beliefs and cultures. Unfortunately, some of the cultural practices that we have been proud of for centuries, have come under serious scrutiny for contributing towards the rising numbers of HIV infected people. It is not surprising that even the custodians of our culture, the chiefs have come out to confess that something has to be done to stop culture from contributing to the death of the nation through HIV/Aids.

All these HIV/Aids discussions need to reach out to the masses. One technological factor that has made this possible is the mass media, radio, television and more. The mass media makes mass communication easy. Mass communication, according to media theorist James W. Carey (1975), is a symbolic process whereby reality is produced, maintained, repaired and transformed. Mass media and mass communication in this 21st century are crucial aspects of many cultures. Through this cultural perspective on mass media, we learn that mass communication is only effective when the audience, producers and technologies are all part and parcel of the communication process.

Culture is the learned behaviour of members of a given social group. Others have expanded on this meaning. Writer M. Harris gives this meaning; culture is the learned, socially acquired traditions and lifestyles of the members of the society, including their patterned, repetitive ways of thinking, feeling and acting. Why am I bringing up this integration of mass communication and culture in the HIV/Aids context? As a producer of mass communication programmes, I have come across some cultural barriers that are so embedded in some Malawians so much that they don’t understand how mass communication can assist in the fight against HIV. The biggest problem with these cultural sycophants is the belief that there are some things that cannot be discussed on the radio or Television because doing so would be profane or obscene.

But what is the main channel of HIV transmission? According to the experts, it is sexual intercourse. The teachings of HIV prevention therefore emphasise on sexual intercourse. The ABC of HIV prevention is all about sex.

It is therefore heart breaking when you are told by some mass media ‘experts’ or individuals that when you are communicating with the masses on issues of HIV, one needs to censure ones language. There is a saying in Chichewa that says; moto umapita kwatsala tchire (fire goes where there is still bush.) there are a lot of youths in Malawi that are not yet infected with HIV and some are not yet sexually active. If Malawians continue believing that discussing sexual issues openly with this group is obscene, we will not win the battle against Aids. These people need to wake up and start understanding that the culture of euphemism in HIV/Aids communication has led to many youths trying things that they don’t understand because everybody was afraid of using obscene language. ‘Does a fish know that it’s wet?’ influential cultural and media critic Marshall McLuhan would ask. The answer he would say is “No”. The fish’s existence is so dominated by water that only when water is absent is the fish aware of its condition. Do we want our youths to continue believing that sex is natural that is why everybody is having sex? Is it obscene when you use the radio or television to tell the youths about the dangers of sex? Should we wait until one is infected for us to realise that sex can be dangerous? I believe this is an era in which we all have to fight the euphemism culture and start calling a spade a spade. If we are to save the future generation from HIV, the mass media ‘experts’ that think discussing explicitly on radio or TV sexual issues in the context of HIV is obscene should find another job.

These people should understand that culture provides information that helps us make meaningful distinctions about right and wrong, appropriate and inappropriate, good and bad and so on. How does culture do this? It is obviously through communication including mass communication. Cultures limiting effects can be negative when we entrust our communication to media gurus whose interests are narrow, unwilling and unable to move past patterned, repetitive ways of thinking, feeling and acting. A culture’s values and beliefs reside in the stories it tells. Our stories help define our realities, shaping the way we think, feel and act. The stories that people tell about their sexual experiences on radio or TV can help a lot of people change their sexual behaviours.

The good thing is that the youths find these so-called ‘obscene’ programmes very helpful. It must be mentioned here that this communication must be professionally and ethically transmitted but the media ‘experts’ should not hide behind ethics when it is apparent that they don’t understand media ethics. They don’t even know the difference between explicit and obscene material.

Mass communication is not just transmission of messages in space but it is central to the maintenance of society in time. In other words, the ritual perspective is necessary to understand the cultural importance of mass communication. The mass media has a crucial role in informing the next generation about the dangers of HIV and everything that goes with it explicitly so that the youths know and understand. HIV/Aids is compelling us to change the way we live, think and act on issues of sex. It calls us to change our sexual life style. We are forced to change the way we communicate on issues of sex and sexuality. We are persuaded to abandon the ‘culture of silence’ and start talking explicitly about the very issues that we all culturally thought were a taboo to prevent accelerated rates of HIV infections and unnecessary deaths.

July 16, 2007

Women's health on the AIRwaves

AIR’s 14 radio stations in Madhya Pradesh ran a 15 to 20 minute episode daily on the issue of women's health.

Ten percent of maternal deaths in India take place in the state of Madhya Pradesh. Maternal death audits as undertaken by the state reveal that how timely medical attention still is a challenge for many pregnant women. Lack of awareness on recognition of danger signs, issue of transport, access to proper medical facilities, poverty are still some of the many challenges which needed to be overcome. Though the Government of Madhya Pradesh has launched many schemes to promote institutional deliveries and to combat maternal mortality, with special focus for below the poverty line and those belonging to scheduled castes and tribes, but a lot remains to be done.

Media and civil society are helping to raise concern and create awareness on the issue. All India Radio with its vast network in the state particularly in rural Madhya Pradesh contributed its bit by using air waves for the cause by addressing issues of immediate concern to its audiences.

All India Radio in collaboration with the state government and UNICEF, supported by Department of International Development (DFID), strategically used its programme options to engage communities on the issue of safe motherhood and help voice their concern by its people - policy interface. It also used its news network to give voice to state and civil society on the issue. Content analysis of last few months i.e. June 2006 - Feb 2007 AIR news reports tell us that the issue has been in focus and is spread evenly. News pertaining to government proclamations, schemes, and events took the major share but the news network also relayed statements of various experts and people working on the issue, which is a positive trend.

AIR has a strong presence especially in rural areas vide its fourteen radio stations across the state. It ran a 15 to 20 minute episode daily in form of a series from its network of radio stations on the issue of women's health. 35 such programmes were aired. Each programme had a local expert, often a medical professional to answer the questions and issues that were raised by the people from the district. It also provided information on how to recognize danger signs in pregnancy, stressed on the need of institutional delivery, care including nutrition of women during pregnancy, and issues related to anaemia. The purpose was to provide information and answers to the questions to the community by a local expert.

In addition to the same, the radio network also aired a series of seven one-hour live-phone in programmes on its afternoon prime time slot each month. It was a 'people - policy maker interface'. As part of the same programme a political representative or a representative from the state department was present in the studio to answer questions raised by callers on the issue. For the first time the issue of maternal health was addressed in this forum. The initiative by its very nature strengthened the community - system interface.

In the first programme the State Health & Family Welfare Minister answered questions from various rural parts of the state. Callers from far off villages in districts like Rewa, Tikamgarh, Sagar and Hoshangabad, brought to the notice of Health Minister the problems they face when it comes to the functioning of the health delivery system at the primary health centre level. The common grievance was that the doctors and nurses were absent from the duty. Questions were also raised the benefits of schemes not accruing and the types of health schemes available. On similar lines representatives from State's Women Commission, Human Rights Commission, Women and Child development department, Rural Development and Public Relations department were involved. Fifteen to twenty questions were asked in each programme.

In the last of the series the Chief Minister of the state answered queries of people in the state on the issue. Though the programme focused on women's health and safe motherhood, issues of education especially of girls, grant of scholarships to girls as provided by the state and violence against women also came up. In turn the programme offered an opportunity for people to get answers to their grievances by their elected representative on issues which many times get neglected in the political process.

by anil gulati

Bihar Schools to have Children's Parliament

Bihar State Governmment (India) has decided to set up Bal Sansad's (Children's Parliament) in 70,000 elementary schools of the state. State Minister for Human Resource Development Brishn Patel recently inaugurated the training programme for the Master Trainers which will support setting up of the Bal Sansads. He in his address said the Bal Sansads would assist in improving the content of development and curricular activities in the schools. It will help to make the schools child-friendly. It is proposed to constitute the same by August 5, 2007.

The Master Trainers and other participants were presented the models of functioning Bal Sansads in the schools of Vaishali and Nalanda districts. As conceived, the 12-member body of the Bal Sansad would be elected by the assembly of students in a school, and would have one each of prime minister and deputy minister as well as five each of ministers and deputy ministers.

The five ministers would hold the portfolios of education, health and sanitation, water and agriculture, science and library, as well as culture and sport. Each ministry would be aided by a council of 10 to 16 students, which would advise the minister.

The students in each school would be divided into five houses to help the minister in carrying out various activities. As planned, the Student Government would meet once a month, and it would report to the students' assembly on quarterly basis the activities taken up. The aim of the Bal Sansads is to provide a platform for children to express their views and to also involve them in the developmental activities of the schools. Expectedly, the measures taken would improve the personality of the students in terms of self-awareness, leadership quality, group activities, motivation and communication skill.

UNICEF's Job Zachariah present at the occassion of its launch said 'Children, as per the Convention on the Rights of Child (CRC), have right to be consulted and involved in all matters relating to their edeucation'. 'Bal Sansad would go a long way in making the school child-friendly by improving the participation of children in school management'.

July 08, 2007

The Fisherman Who Ran Out of Excuses Before He Ran Out of Time

Tom Davis
One day in January in Hula Hula, an old fisherman walked merrily up the hill by the house of the Health Promoter, Raffaella. He was smoking a cigarette. Raffaella remembered her own father’s painful death from cancer due to his smoking, and she resolved to do something about it in her community. Raffaella talked to the old fisherman from her yard for a while and then told him that he really should stop smoking because it could give him cancer. The old fisherman said, "I'll never get cancer. The people in my family are very hardy and healthy." So Raffaella explained to him how anyone who smokes has a higher risk of getting cancer.

In February, the old fisherman walked by Raffaella’s house again. Raffaella saw that he was still smoking and mentioned to him that he could get emphysema from smoking, too. The old fisherman laughed and said, "Well, I don't even know what emphysema is, but I'm sure it won't be anything that I can't handle even if I do get it." So Raffaella explained to him what a terrible disease emphysema is. Raffaella realized that she needed to do more than just talk to the fisherman if she wanted to do something about cancer. She worked with the local community leaders to create and display several posters in local gathering places that pointed out the health hazards of smoking. She was also successful in getting community leaders to agree to not allow smoking during official community meetings.

March came and the old fisherman came puffing up the hill and puffed a `hello' to Raffaella. Raffaella asked him if the cancer had set in yet. The old fisherman said, "I don't have it yet, but if I'm supposed to get it, I'm sure I will whether or not I quit smoking. I've smoked all my life!" So Raffaella explained to him how quitting smoking at any age could make him live longer.

In April, the old man slowly walked up the hill, coughing and hacking. He knew Raffaella was going to ask him, so he called out before she could ask, "No I haven't stopped smoking, but I want to. And I did try! It's just too hard!" So Raffaella explained to him some ways to stop smoking more easily.

In May, the old man took forever to get up the hill since he was breathing like a mule loaded with salt. Raffaella asked him, "Are you still smoking?" and he said, "Well, I finally gave them up on Wednesday . . . but over the weekend I forgot that I wasn't smoking anymore, saw a pack on the table and lit one up! I just can't remember that I don't smoke! So Raffaella explained to him that he should get rid of all the cigarettes and ashtrays to "remind him" that he doesn't smoke.

In June, the old man had to stop three times coming up the hill since he was breathing so hard. Raffaella said, "You STILL haven't given them up?!" and the old man said, "Well, it would be a lot easier if all my friends didn't smoke! Every time I see them, it makes me start up again!" So Raffaella explained to him that he needed to either find friends that didn't smoke or convince his smoking friends to give it up, too. Raffaella met with the old fisherman and his friends and, with Raffaella’s help, they began a support group to help each other stop smoking.
In July, the old man had to stop five times coming up the hill. He called out to Raffaella: "Don't tell me anything else. I know that it must be God's will for me to smoke and die of smoking since I can't seem to stop.” Raffaella called the old man over for coffee, and read to him from the Bible where it says that our bodies are temples (1 Cor 6:19-20). She explained that it was not God's will that he die of his habit (Isa 65:20). She agreed that he probably could not stop on his own, though, and that he did indeed need God's help to do it. She suggested he pray to God for strength to quit, and for more ideas on how to do it.

In August, the old fisherman climbed the mountain very happily as if he were a young man again! He called to Raffaella, "I'm no longer a smoker and neither are my friends! I convinced them that with the money we would save by giving up smoking, we could form a fishing cooperative. Now, none of us are smokers. Thanks a lot, Raffaella!! I thank God that I ran out of excuses before I ran out of time!" The fisherman regained his energy and died at 95 years old.