An innovative program by the Reproductive and Child Health Alliance (RACHA) is using comedians to help spread the word about health in rural communities around Siem Reap.
Originally conceived in 2002, the Comedy for Health program regularly stages productions in four provinces including Siem Reap, using comedy to address sensitive health issues such as family planning and HIV prevention, and making medical information more accessible.
“The idea behind using Comedy for Health is that we want to change the methodology of providing health education to villagers”, says RACHA provincial coordinator Thach Ly Khann. “You can conduct health education by showing pictures, posters, through mass media, through group discussion. But this method really changes the environment of health education. People can enjoy themselves and at the same time they receive health messages.”
The performers are not professional actors or comedians – they’re local talents found within the community. RACHA provides the scenery and scripts for the typically two-hour shows which have proved highly popular, attracting average audiences of 400 people.
“In the past we have disseminated health messages about TB, malaria, dengue fever, antenatal care and controlling diarrhoea,” says Thach. “And we talk about referral systems. At the end we conduct a question and answer session.
“If we are talking about TB, for example, we’ll ask, what is TB?” says Thach. “We talk about how people can infect each other, and the signs of TB. Where people can get diagnosis and treatment, how long the treatment takes. This is a health message that goes straight to the point. Another example is controlling diarrhoea, and how to prevent it.”
The content of the comedic plays varies according to the type of health message being discussed, as well as the season.
“In June or July it is dengue fever season, so we need to include a scene that relates to dengue fever,” Thach says. “And in the past, during the outbreak of baby influenza, we had to discuss more about this. So it depends on the season and the situation.”
The performances take place in the evening, and usually begin with music and traditional dancing, often attracting many local children. Once the music is over, the team members introduce themselves and explain what they do before the “real” show begins. In remote communities where access to media and entertainment is scarce, it is little wonder the shows have proved such a success. Last year, in Siem Reap province alone, 141 shows were performed at 282 villages linked to 29 health centres, with an estimated 100, 330 people participating.
As well as spreading vital health information, the performances deal with a common Cambodian belief in spirits. The shows encourage parents and families to seek medical help from health professionals rather than use traditional healing methods.
Recent surveys showed that 90 per cent of the local population now go to a health centre, as opposed to visiting a traditional healer or praying to spirits.