Changing behaviour and attitudes via the airwaves in Zambia

Under the MDGi programme in Zambia (2013-2019), UNICEF worked to change social norms for better health.

Simon Ingram, UNICEF Communications Consultant
UNICEF ZAMBIA MDGi radio listening.JPG
UNICEF ZAMBIA/2019/outset9
21 August 2019

Despite her waving arms and a powerful voice, it takes Mary Malenga several minutes before she can settle the boisterous group that has gathered in the tree-shaded yard of a house on the outskirts of Kitwe this morning.

The crowd is a mixed one: nursing mothers with babies strapped to their backs sit alongside older matriarchs in colourful wraps, and a scattering of (mainly) older men.

Like any good chairperson, Mrs Malenga, an energetic grandmother in a green T-shirt, begins by asking the group to recall the topics of the previous meeting. “We talked about the danger signs during pregnancy, like swollen legs,” volunteers one voice.

Other hands shoot up. “We talked about high temperatures and how you can get infections,” calls out another woman.

Mrs Malenga nods approvingly, and then walks to a small table on which a digital radio sits ready.

“Today we’re going to learn about birth preparedness – the things that are needed when a woman is about to deliver.”

With that, she switches on the radio, and a lively jingle signals the start of a 30-minute recorded programme.

The listening group that Mrs Malenga leads is one of 220 set up under the Millennium Development Goal (MDGi) programme, supported by the European Union. The members are mostly Community Based Volunteers who have been enlisted with the aim of spreading vital health and other messages to people living in the most remote or impoverished areas. This is a particular challenge here, among the mining communities of Zambia’s Copperbelt, where new families arrive frequently from other parts of the country in search of work.

The pre-recorded radio programmes that Mrs Malenga’s group listen to cover everything from pregnancy and immunization to family planning and the use of condoms to prevent HIV/AIDS. The information they learn can then be shared when the volunteers go door-to-door in their designated area, or simply when they are chatting with neighbours or passers-by.

With its powerful reach in Zambia, radio was an obvious channel for MDGi’s efforts to change people’s behaviour around a whole range of health-related issues, and to convince families to make more use of the clinics and other services provided for them (not least by MDGi). The radio programmes are also aired in public places, such as on long-distance buses.