People in Burundi say they would like to have smaller families and there is no shortage of contraceptives, but the impoverished country in Africa's Great Lakes region struggles with birth rates and rates of maternal mortality that are among the highest in the world.
"So, where's the disconnect?" said Andy Bryant, executive director of the Segal Family Foundation, a New Jersey-based private philanthropy that has been working in Burundi for the past seven years.
He said Burundians typically say they would prefer to have four children. But lack of education, cultural and religious taboos, misinformation and suspicions about contraception all contribute to a disconnect that has left Burundi with the seventh highest birth rate in the world, at 40.04 births per 1,000 people, and a rate of modern contraception use by women of only 22 percent.
The Segal Family Foundation, which works in 18 African countries, hopes to close this gap by taking to the Burundian airwaves with a new kind of radio soap opera that rivets its listeners with torrid affairs, tragedy and treachery while teaching them about family planning, childhood diseases and HIV/AIDS, Bryant told Thomson Reuters Foundation.
The Segal Family Foundation, in partnership with UNICEF, the United Nations Population Fund, Population Services International and the Dutch government, made a $1.6 million pledge Tuesday at the Clinton Global Initiative (CGI) as a three-year commitment to create and broadcast the soap opera. The program, which will be produced by the Population Media Center in the local Kirundi language, will employ Burundians and consist of 208 episodes, with two broadcast every week over two years starting in 2014.
With 90 percent of the population working in agriculture and living in rural areas, many of them without electricity, Burundi "really is the place where radio is king," said Bryant, noting 80 percent of the country's 11 million people have radios.
The soap opera scripts haven't been written yet, but Bryant said they will be designed to appeal to all Burundians, especially the 45 percent currently under the age of 14. "Soap opera content resonates with older folks too, but I think young people will be fascinated with scandal, sex and betrayal," he said.
If young Burundians grow up with changed attitudes about contraception, family planning and maternal and child health, it could have a significant impact on lowering the country's maternal mortality rate which, at 800 per 100,000 live births, is the sixth highest in the world.
Bryant said one way the foundation will measure the efficacy of the soap operas will be by asking people seeking family planning services why they are doing so, as well as monitoring the sale of contraceptives. If the soap opera begins in January 2014, he said, "I'm hoping to come back to CGI in September with some kind of results."
The dramas won't be aimed just at girls and women. "One thing we've learned is that women's empowerment that is not inclusive of men and boys rings false in the long term," said Bryant. "Even delivering babies in a health facility as opposed to at home-a willing husband may facilitate that."
About 61 percent of Burundians are Roman Catholic, but Bryant said he doesn't think that is a major factor in the lack of contraceptive use. "We've met a lot of priests and church and lay people there who distinguish between their belief in the Church and Rome's stance on contraceptives. I think there's a belief that this (stance) doesn't work in our society and we're seeing the negative impact of disuse of contraceptives."
Burundi's high population growth takes an economic and physical toll on a country still recovering from a civil war that killed over 200,000 people between 1993 and 2005. There is little industry in Burundi, and the majority of Burundians are engaged in subsistence farming and growing coffee and tea, the country's primary exports. The long conflict, soil erosion, drought, over-cultivation and overpopulation, however, have reduced agricultural production and put pressure on available land.
Population growth also increases competition for arable land, a potential flashpoint for the kind of ethnic tensions that sparked the civil war.
As a result, anything that can enhance the use of family planning, including a soap opera, may help avert future conflict, said Bryant.