Radio is an inexpensive yet influential tool that can create positive changes in social belief systems and behaviours.
Community radio is especially powerful in the way that serves a local community, covering the interests and issues relevant to its members, which mass media outlets often overlook.
On the outskirts of Moulvibazar, north-eastern Bangladesh, sits a two-storied building abuzz with the young, powerful voices of Radio Pollikontho – an initiative of BRAC’s community empowerment programme. This community radio station is a platform for people in rural Sylhet to express their stories in their own language and style.
Having started its journey in 2012, Radio Pollikontho has been broadcasting programmes addressing a wide array of issues spanning from reproductive healthcare, gender-based violence, legal advice and literature – all in Sylheti, the local dialect. The language helps establish a sense of community, enabling people to relate to the broadcasts and learn useful information. The programmes are produced for the community and by the community – a dynamic team of 24 young individuals who write their own scripts and broadcast them.
Nilima Akter Papri is one of the team members in Radio Pollikontho who runs a healthcare-related programme called Suswasthya (good health in Bengali). One of her main concerns is to de-stigmatise dialogues on menstrual and reproductive healthcare, and address health concerns people in the community face every day. She conducts courtyard meetings with women, notes their queries and concerns, and invites a healthcare professional to the station to answer them live on air.
The journey has not been smooth for Nilima. Her family and neighbours- conservative village elders, did not welcome her discussions on menstrual and reproductive healthcare.
“I used to be heavily criticised by the elders for promoting contraceptives,” she said, “It is considered a taboo topic in society. Many elderly women would not hesitate to use crude languages to scold us for our ‘blatant blasphemy’, and at times, their behaviour even made me cry. But I continued educating women about the importance of reproductive healthcare”.
Besides working on such sensitive issues, Nilima also addresses more common issues like heart health, diabetes, maternal and neonatal health, and many more.
She recalls as one of the most horrific experiences of her life- the unfortunate death of an infant due to lack of awareness and superstition.
During one of her courtyard meetings, Nilima noticed symptoms of infant jaundice in a newborn baby boy. Upon further probing, she realised that the baby’s family was aware of the condition but refused to seek medical help due to superstitious beliefs. Despite her repeated persistence, and the mother’s pleas, the family, especially the baby’s grandmother, refused any medical intervention and opted for alternative medicine from a witch doctor instead. The baby’s little body could not handle it. He passed away. He was only nine days old. “I could not save him,” Nilima recalls, looking away with tearful eyes.
That was an eye-opening experience for the family, who realised Nilima was right. It changed something in Nilima as well. She started working harder. She started reaching out to more communities in rural Moulvibazar. “No child should have to die of easily preventable diseases,” she says, determined.
This year, Radio Pollikontho has been awarded the Meena Media Award by UNICEF for the seventh consecutive year for its outstanding contribution to the society. Additionally, they also scaled up their broadcasting range through the installation of a 250-watt transmitter and antenna. This will facilitate them to cover three districts and 11 sub-districts in Sylhet, reaching a wider range of audiences than before.
The fact that Radio Pollikontho is the first community radio to win national and international awards is certainly incredible. But in reality, it is not that surprising. It is the young, determined people like Nilima, who perceive their work as passion rather than profession, are catalysing the steady progress in social development. It is a team of a few of the brightest individuals in the community, fighting valiantly against all forms of discrimination and ignorance through the most accessible entertainment tool available to them.
Miftahul Jannat Chowdhury is the Deputy Manager of Content and Campaign at BRAC Communications.
Zaian F Chowdhury is the communications porfolio lead of learning, empowerment and innovation of BRAC Communications.