In Ethiopia, it can be dangerous for a girl to leave the house. Not because of war, or weather, but "weddings"--specifically the long-standing cultural tradition of marriage by abduction. Girls as young as 11 are surrounded by a gang of men or boys and then raped, beaten and forced to marry one. The girls cannot look to their families for help--they are fallen women now, and there is great social pressure to accept their fate.

Although marriage by abduction is illegal in Ethiopia, the United Nations Children's Fund says that about 70 percent of marriages in that country are the result of kidnapping and rape.

But what if a group of villagers said, "We will not allow this to happen anymore!"

Thanks to a serialized radio program, that's exactly what happened in Ethopia's Amhara region. A radio serial drama brought these girls' plight to life in a way that no simple educational announcement could, and villagers came together to demand that local authorities enforce the law.

The popularity of similar serial dramas--on radio and TV--is spurring social changes around the world, which is the goal of their producer, Population Media Center, a nonprofit organization headquartered in Shelburne, Vt. The center's broadcasts, now airing in 15 countries, bring to life such issues as child trafficking, HIV prevention, family planning, and equality for women and girls.

The mix of saucy scandal and social learning was developed by Mexican television-producer Miguel Sabido, who relies on the theories of Albert Bandura, PhD, and Carl Jung to get social messages across.

"To increase people's motivation to change, they have to see the benefits of the behavior," says Bandura. "The dramas demonstrate the benefits of the good behavior and the consequences of the bad."

Video created the radio star

As someone who had witnessed widespread illiteracy, over population and other social challenges in his native Mexico, Sabido hit upon the idea of trying to influence people's behaviors by creating dramas that mirrored people's real lives and everyday challenges. In developing his programs, he emphasizes Bandura's social learning principles--especially modeling and the power of vicarious motivators. Sabido creates not only positive and negative characters, but transitional characters, who start out engaging in the negative conduct, but learn, through their trials and tribulations, the benefits of the positive behaviors, notes Bandura. The characters demonstrate steps that audience members can take to change their own lives.

In 1998, William Ryerson, a public health specialist with more than 20 years of experience working in family planning and population control, founded the center to take Sabido's method global.

"If you want to have society wide change, you need not just theoretical model, but a method of translation and dissemination," explains Bandura who has worked with the center since its founding.

Taking it to the streets

Evidence of the method's power is in the statistics. In Ethiopia, two radio programs that tackled a long list of social concerns--reproductive health, family planning, HIV/AIDS, women's status, marriage by abduction, education of girls and spousal communication--were broadcast over a two-year period. Research found that after the programs aired, the birth rate fell from 5.4 to 4.3 children per woman, and demand for contraceptives increased by 157 percent. In addition, male listeners sought HIV-testing at four times the rate of non-listeners, and 98 percent of listeners could identify three ways that HIV is transmitted.

In the Philippines, a radio serial drama aired that addressed reproductive health, HIV/AIDS, women's empowerment and youth health. A survey five months after the broadcast found that 22 percent of local leaders reported a decrease in reports of spousal abuse. In the month after the program ended, 75 percent of local leaders had no reports of spousal abuse. In addition, the surveys revealed that spousal communication about reproductive issues increased from 21 percent to 34 percent over a six-month period.

The center has now aired successful programs on female genital mutilation in Sudan, child trafficking and slavery in West Africa and childhood marriage in Nigeria. Funding comes from a variety of sources, such as the United Nations Children's Fund, the United Nation's Population Fund, and governmental agencies in various countries such as Save the Children in Norway and the U.S. Agency for International Development. The American Psychological Foundation recently provided partial funding for "Gobe de Haske" (Tomorrow Will Be a Brighter Day), a serial radio drama in Niger. About two dozen charitable organizations and hundreds of private donors also donate money, notes Ryerson.

"Our strategy is to continue to work in each country until their health indicators match Sweden's," he says. "It's a long-term project, and with the next programs we will take what we've learned to make it better."