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For every child, end AIDS

‘Shuga: Love, Sex, Money' screened at global AIDS conference

UNICEF Deputy Executive Director Geeta stands with UNICEF partners and cast members of the 'Shuga' television and radio series.

WASHINGTON, D.C., 26 July 2012 – When UNICEF and its partners, MTV and HIV-Free Generation of the United States President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) , wanted to inform adolescents and young people how to protect themselves against the HIV epidemic, they used one of the world’s oldest and most reliable forms of communication: drama.

On 24 July, in Washington, D.C., participants in the XIX International AIDS Conference  (AIDS 2012) saw the results at a screening of ‘Shuga: Love, Sex, Money’. It’s the latest chapter in an audio and video series that follows young characters living in sub-Saharan Africa as they confront the epidemic’s impact on their lives.  The fictitious, but very realistic, series was launched in 2009, telling the story of a group of friends in Nairobi who must navigate the complexities of life, love and HIV prevention. It deals openly and honestly with sometimes controversial themes including multiple sexual partnerships, alcohol abuse and HIV testing, and relies on the authenticity of its stories to win the attention and respect of its audience.

Changing the conversation

UNICEF, MTV and PEPFAR collaborated on the initial ‘Shuga’ TV series. A second edition, ‘Shuga: Love, Sex, Money’, was produced by MTV and PEPFAR, appearing early in 2012, with UNICEF and MTV debuting an additional component later in the year – this time in a radio format focused on characters from rural settings facing the challenges of moving to the city. Both the radio series and the latest video episodes were featured at a reception held during the AIDS 2012 conference.

Nick Mutuma, who plays Leo in the TV series, was one of three ‘Shuga’ actors who appeared at the screening. He said that the project changed the dialogue around HIV and AIDS in Nairobi.

“It got the whole town buzzing,” he said. “It got Nairobi talking, because this is an issue that was a taboo before. It would be, like, a mood-killer.”

But the series and its positive messages changed that by addressing the stigma attached to HIV and AIDS and by communicating the fact that one can live with the virus. “Young people were more curious to know about testing, about how to get tested and where to go to get tested.”

Cast members of 'Shuga: Love, Sex, Money' attend a screening of the audio video series in Washington, D.C., at the XIX International AIDS Conference.

Why Audio? 

At the start of the screening, UNICEF Deputy Executive Director Geeta Rao Gupta explained that “by adding platforms such as radio, social media and mobile phones, we could significantly expand the reach of the series.” This approach was supported by a 2010 evaluation by the Johns Hopkins University. 

Dr. Gupta announced that through a collaboration with the Praekelt Foundation, ‘Shuga Radio’ will be available free to nearly 70 per cent of all mobile phone users in Kenya and Tanzania.

Transforming lives 

But ‘Shuga’ would merely a form of entertainment if it didn’t affect the thinking and behaviours of its young audience. And according to the actors who attended the reception, it has done just that.

Ikubese Emmanuel Ifeanyichukwu, who plays Femi, recalled that when the TV series began to air in Nairobi, he found himself very popular. One young woman in particular seemed determined to speak with him. It turned out that she had a story to tell.

She revealed that she had been about to lose her virginity to her boyfriend when she saw an episode of ‘Shuga’ in which key characters are tested for HIV. That inspired them to get tested together and make informed choices. They learned that while she was HIV free, her boyfriend was HIV positive. 

“If she hadn’t watched that episode of ‘Shuga’, it could have been a different story. I call it the ‘power of Shuga,’” Mr. Ifeanyichukwu said. “I wonder how many young people out there had that dramatic time when they had to make the decision to get tested, and ‘Shuga’ changed their lives.”

He will soon have the answer to these questions. The ‘Shuga’ partners are currently monitoring the impact of the series on testing, service utilization and other behaviours by the 45 million young people estimated to live in the six countries where the radio programme airs – Cameroon, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Kenya, Lesotho, South Africa and Tanzania. Preliminary findings are expected by the end of 2012.



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