New Delhi: Veronica Singh is a 25-year-old health volunteer from the village of Chalakdih, Jharkhand. When a family in her village refused to vaccinate their child due to a mild fever, Singh and her friend, Vandana Kalindi, resolutely fought to get the child immunized. When the two women refused to back down, they were threatened by parents in the village armed with sticks. Eventually, the duo was not only successful in changing the parents’ minds, but also began holding regular discussions with women in the village on health and sanitation issues.

What makes Singh and Kalindi’s story remarkable is not so much about their success, but their inspiration: A television serial called Kyunki… Jeena Isi Ka Naam Hai, produced by Unicef.

Based around Unicef’s Facts for Life—a book that deals with 13 major causes of morbidity and mortality—Kyunki is Unicef’s flagship attempt at harnessing the power of entertainment education to provide parents with health information that could save women and children’s lives in rural India.

Influential medium: Veronica Singh, a health volunteer from Chalakdih village, Jharkhand. Photo: Unicef

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AlkaMalhotra of UNICEF talks about the genesis of the show “Kyunki… JeenaIssiKaNaamHai" and the challenge of balancing messages and entertainment.

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Paolo Mefalopulos of UNICEF talks about the concept of using entertainment for education and development.

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Unicef is just one of a growing number of development organizations capitalizing on mass media as a tool to promote social messages. As television and mobile coverage extend across India, a growing number of development organizations are harnessing the power of mass media entertainment to convey health and social messages to some of the hardest-to-reach communities. Called “entertainment education", it’s an approach that has long been a part of outreach in the developed world, but has come of age in India on a large scale in the past five years—drawing on popular television shows, games designed for mobile phones, and social networking technology to reach communities.

“There are people who are best reached watching street performances, while others are best reached through television, mobile phone, Facebook or social media," said Uttara Bharath Kumar, senior program officer for John Hopkins University Center for Communication Programs. “Effective entertainment education is finding ways to use these platforms to best create discussions, and disseminate information to promote health and social behaviour."

New concept

The concept of using entertainment as an educational medium has a long history among the traditional performers of India. Rajasthani puppeteers have used performance as a medium for telling stories about India’s history and traditional folklore for centuries. More recently, non-governmental organizations have adopted many of these traditional forms of entertainment to talk about issues like domestic violence, disability and HIV.

Children learning educational games on a cellphone. Photo: Unicef

Unicef was inspired to attempt a soap opera after noting the profound influence of television in rural communities during polio eradication campaigns. “When television comes on, everyone in rural areas is glued to it—because the story is interesting and people are then talking about the characters in the story," said Malhotra. “The idea that came into our heads was let’s do an entertaining show which carries information and ideas about child protection."

But effectively turning a soap opera into an educational tool is a challenging task. “It’s a fine balance because if you focus too much on the entertainment, you risk losing the educational content, but if you focus too much on the educational value, you may lose your viewer," said Malhotra. “Both are equally important, and you have to walk a fine line."

Competition from other, purely entertainment-based television shows further raises the stakes, making this balancing act all the more imperative.

“There are so many other shows out there, it can be very difficult to keep an audience," she said. “But keeping them interested is key."

The making of Kyunki involved the elaborate coordination of multiple teams—a “messaging team" to decide what information should be conveyed through each episode, the scriptwriters, production team, and finally a research team to measure impact.

“It is far more difficult to create entertainment projects for a good cause, than to create pure entertainment," Usha Bhasin, deputy director general of Doordarshan, said in a Unicef report on social messaging through television. “It takes much more than creativity."

A screen shot from an episode of Kyunki…Jeena Isi Ka Naam Hai, produced by Unicef. Photo: Unicef

Extensive pre- and post-exposure surveys measuring the change of knowledge of Kyunki viewers found a significant impact after repeated viewing: Mid-term evaluation of the show found that regular viewers reported a significantly higher recall of key issues like proper breastfeeding, HIV awareness and birth timing, compared with the baseline.

“The multiplicity of issues and sources is one of the largest challenges in India. And traditional thinking and social norms are very, very strong as well," said Kumar. “But if anything can change it, entertainment can—it’s a medium that’s universal."

Mobile phones offer an even wider audience for entertainment education purposes: The makers of Sesame Street India’s Galli Galli Sim Sim—one of top five most-watched educational programmes for kids on television in India—has also been working on adapting an HTML application for their show accessible by most basic handsets, in an effort to reach the children of marginalized communities, such as migrant workers. “We realized that these children often don’t have access to continuous education," said Sashwati Banerjee, managing director for Sesame Workshop India. “They might not have a television—but most will still have mobile phones."

Through an ongoing pilot programme in Gurgaon, they have trained migrant families how to use their mobile application, which includes songs and radio episodes, short videos, besides storybooks designed to reinforce lessons relating to basic hygiene, sanitation, math and literacy.

“Right now, they are totally marginalized—because they are migrants and so transient in nature. Many do not have access to traditional education or government schools," said Banerjee. “The advantage of this approach is that they can learn at their own pace, even if they are not in school. It cannot replace a classroom, but it is at least a good way to provide additional input to children who cannot access education, and supplement the education of those that do."

Mobile technology is dramatically extending the reach of development organizations.

“A big breakthrough for entertainment education in the past two to three years has been gaming, social networking and mobile technology. It’s a particularly effective way to reach the young—from teenagers, to people in their 20s," said Kumar. “There are so many ways we can use these platforms to create discussions and dissemination information to promote health and social behaviour."

Twin brothers Hilmi and Subhi Quraishi are the founders of ZMQ Software Systems, a “technology for development" company that develops mobile games for social change, among other development sector technology solutions. By creating entertaining educational games accessible even on the most simple handset, the brothers hope to reach communities that even television hasn’t reached. “Underserved communities are underserved in every way—even information dissemination doesn’t reach them," said Subhi Quraishi. “Mobile phones allow us to reach these communities. But we cannot bombard them with texts or preaching—so we have developed something light and fun that they will want to interact with."

Their most popular game, LifeChoices, is a role-playing, decision-making game for girls. Featuring a village girl, players have to navigate various hurdles (early marriage, parental disapproval), and attain education and an independent career. Another game, Safety Cricket, draws on the popular sport as a metaphor for HIV awareness. Additional games promote themes around proper prenatal care, tuberculosis (TB) treatment, and even the philosophy of Gandhi. Since they began, their games have been downloaded in more than 18 countries. “Games are the most powerful, primarily because they are self-learning—you go to a game rather than a teacher comes to you," said Subhi Quraishi. “They are interactive, they are attractive, they are fun, but they also challenge you as a human being. But a game is a positive challenge— it pulls you. It’s a personalized challenge."

More importantly, games appear to be a highly effective way of imparting information to youth. Aparna Khanna, head of the department of development communication and extension at the University of Delhi, has been measuring the effectiveness of the games produced by ZMQ, and has found that the level of knowledge surrounding issues of HIV, TB and other themes significantly higher after playing the game.

“Games in any format have been very effective at conveying messages—and they are very cost-effective," said Khanna. “My plea for handset companies and big companies is that they use this as part of their CSR (corporate social responsibility) initiative."

malia.p@livemint.com

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