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Changing Cambodia one message at a time

Students wash their hands next to a public health poster that explains the importance of good hygiene. Photo by Neang Sokchea

Unless you have been stuck in a well for the past five years, you have heard a song in which a young girl is talking with her mother about breast-feeding. The jingle, which was part of the British Broadcasting Corporation World Service Trust radio campaign, ended up being a huge hit among mobile-phone users and it has been widely downloaded and used as a ringtone in the ensuing years.

The song caught on due to its entertainment value but, in doing so, it helped spread knowledge about the importance of breast-feeding babies younger than 6 months to thousands of Cambodians in 21 provinces across the country, making it an ideal example of how mass media can be used to address essential social issues.

The song was a part of a maternal and child health project and was one of a number of public service campaigns, including an HIV/AIDS project launched in 2003,that have been broadcast by the BBC in Cambodia.

Public service campaigns can take many forms, using TV, radio, pamphlets, books and billboards as a platform to spread information about social problems and rally support around initiatives for improvement. Over the past decade, organisations like the BBC, Cambodia Health Education Media Service and Population Services International have shown that developing campaigns that spread information in a wide-reaching, relevant and entertaining fashion can facilitate major improvements in the life of a largely uneducated and poor population.

Beginning in 2004, the BBC began to air the country’s first soap opera, called Taste of Life, which captured audiences with its dramatic plots and interesting characters, while simultaneously spreading knowledge about HIV/AIDS and Maternal and Child Health, according to Charles Hamilton, country director of BBC World Service Trust in Cambodia. The campaign included 100 episodes as well 55 different radio and TV ads.

“The biggest impact of that project was the slogan “Good Health, Bright Future”, said Hamilton. “It encouraged people to get treatment when they are sick but also take preventative measures.”

An end-line survey done by the BBC in 2006, after three years of the campaign, found that 99 percent of media consumers reported having heard the slogan, which was attached to everything involved with the campaign, at some point during the previous month. The number of parents who made their children wash their hands to prevent diarrhoea rose from 10 percent to 25 percent. Awareness of acute respiratory infection quadrupled from 20 percent to 80 percent, and thanks to the popular diddy about breastfeeding, understanding of the importance of breast feeding immediately after birth rose from 38 percent to 67 percent.

Media campaigns are not solely responsible for these changes, but for anyone who has grown up in the Kingdom over the past decade, exposure to campaigns such as that run by the BBC have guaranteed that our generation will take better care of ourselves and our families.

Independently established in 2003, CHEMS has also been working on spreading information about HIV/AIDS and Maternal Health in a 20 episode-drama called Music Mission, which was broadcast on radio and TV.

Ros Sokhom, video manager at CHEMS, said that the high rate of death among mothers giving birth inspired a program that promoted the importance of giving birth at a health centre and spread information about what to do before, during and after birth. Like the BBC campaign, the spots created by CHEMS had an almost immediate impact on Cambodian society. “According to research done by the United Nations Population Fund, the messages have changed people’s behaviour, raised awareness, as well as provided health knowledge to people,” said Ros Sokhom.

However, broadcast media is not the remedy to every social ill. Researchers at PSI found that broadcasting messages about HIV/AIDS and condom use via TV and radio didn’t have a significant impact on people’s behaviour.

Despite knowing how to use condoms and where to buy them, people still tended to have unprotected sex if they trusted their partner, said Dan Borapich, communication and marketing director for PSI.

In response to this dilemma, PSI launched a project in 2008 called High Risk Male Client Intervention in four provinces, with the goal of educating people to consistently use condoms, even with their long-time partners, to prevent the spread of HIV and AIDS.

Fifty-one interpersonal communication staff have worked directly with high-risk male clients – men who have sex with multiple partners – to curb the spread of HIV/AIDS in beer gardens, bars and BBQ restaurants to tell them about the necessity of using condoms while having sex with sex workers, wives or girlfriends.

“We have to train our ITC staff to be able to connect with clients and explain how important it is to use condoms,” said Borapich, adding that her organisation reached 150,000 high-risk men this year and hopes to reach 200,000 next year.

The campaign, after only one year, has already had a significant impact on the behaviour of its target audience. A survey conducted by PSI showed that the number of high-risk males who use condoms with their girlfriend or wife rose from 57.7 percent to 69.4 percent between 2008 and 2009, while condom use with commercial partners rose from 84.7 percent to 95.6 percent during the same period.

While nonprofits and civil-service organisations have made tremendous changes in society through public service campaigns, Cambodia’s government has also used mass media to change people’s behaviour and attitudes, most recently through a campaign to raise awareness about their impact on the environment.

Cheak Ang, director of the Department of Environment, said that due to messages on billboards, TV and the radio, along with public statements from government officials, people are changing their behaviour by throwing rubbish into trash cans at public places and natural destinations.

“People are willing to join us after seeing public billboards, and they want to change their behaviour and attitude toward littering,” said Cheak Ang. “I bought peanuts yesterday and the vendor gave me two plastic bags: one for peanuts and the other for peanut shells. This demonstrates the impact of our work in society.”

While an extra bag for nuts may not seem to have the same level of importance as the work being done by the BBC, PSI and CHEMS, the environment and our health are connected, and the current success of the government’s environmental awareness campaign is further proof that through comprehensive and targeted campaigns, a simple message can change society.
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