@yegnaplayer via YouTube/ Screenshot by NPR
Tsega is a teenager who wants to become a doctor. But the schoolgirl’s parents want her to marry an older, well-to-do man – one who could provide for her parents, who are old and not wealthy.
This is the last plot of the revolutionary soap opera Yegnawhich launched its fifth season this spring in Ethiopia.
Child marriage is one of many pressing issues for teens that the show has tackled. Past storylines have focused on cervical cancer vaccines, sanitary napkins, and female genital mutilation. It’s also a show that seeks to create gender equity within its staff – this season the majority of its writers and directors are women.
The soap opera was created by charity Girl Effect, following a magazine and radio show launched a decade ago. Yegna is Amharic for “ours”. The goal has always been to provide useful content for teenage girls. The weekly show has an audience of 9.8 million, of which 44% of viewers are girls between the ages of 13 and 15. Currently, Yegna tries to reach teenagers in remote areas where television may not be available, works with UNICEF to organize screenings in schools in 22 villages, followed by discussions.
It is always difficult to prove that television can change minds and attitudes. Gavi (the Vaccine Alliance), a partner in developing cervical cancer vaccine scenarios, engaged an independent evaluator, Swiss TPH, to interview girls who watched the show and those who haven’t watched it. Female viewers were knowledgeable about cervical cancer than non-viewers (67% vs. 36%) and about the HPV vaccine (76% vs. 47%) and were also more likely to want to take the vaccine (70% versus 43%).
To find out more about the new season, we interviewed
Eden (pronounced Ayden) Tigabu, 25, is a screenwriter for the fifth season of Yegna as well as a production manager and a second assistant director. We spoke (in English) on Zoom from Addis Ababa, where she moved from Harar (a small town in eastern Ethiopia) with her mother and brother after grade 8 to get a better education.
How did you get involved in Yegna?
I always wanted to be a writer, but I studied urban and land-use planning in college because my parents wanted me to get a degree and they went through a lot to make me get there. By chance, I met the editor of Yegna and had the opportunity to work in production. In Season 5, Girl Effect was looking for new talent. They took young interns and trained them in writing, producing and directing. I trained as a writer and led the Season 5 team, which had over 35 crew members.
How do you write the scripts?
We sit together, seven young writers and Emmy-nominated head writer and executive producer Mehret Mandefro. Each season, Girl Effect gives us a series of topics to discuss, based on the issues faced by teenagers in our country and what happened in the previous series. We discuss what elements we want to include, story arcs, structure, cliff-hangers. Then we decide which characters will carry the main story and the sub-stories, and we write the scenario. Yegna has five main characters – three girls and two boys – each with their own story and characteristics.
Which scenario was the most meaningful for you?
It must be the one on child marriage. Girls in rural areas often marry young because their parents are poor and have difficulty earning a living. The character we have chosen for this subject is Tsega. Like me, she came from a rural area to the city to be educated. She lives with her aunt. She is shy, intelligent and devoted to her studies. She wants to be a doctor when she grows up, but her family makes her marry an older man. I won’t tell you how it ends because season 5 is still airing!
I was surprised to see that you had a story about betting. What motivated this?
Many young men bet. They think it’s easy money. And old people who watch football also bet and get in trouble and it causes problems in their marriage. It is such a big problem in our country that our government is talking about banning football betting.
How did you manage the bets?
This story begins in Season 4 with Haile. He’s in high school, but his parents aren’t well off, so he needs to find a job. He had one as a mechanic. In Season 5, he starts making a lot of money while still in high school, but he doesn’t know how to handle it and under peer pressure, he starts betting. At first he wins and thinks it’s an easy way to make money. Then he loses everything.
At first, Girl Effect didn’t approve of this story: they didn’t want people to think [betting] was an easy way to earn money, but we used this story to show young people the importance of learning how to manage their money.
The show offers a different image of girls and women.
Most people in our country think girls aren’t good enough. In the media, when girls are portrayed, it is as mothers, doing housework. If women want to have a job, they are not considered bosses. People prefer to take orders from a man rather than a woman.
Yegna fixes this in most seasons. In one, Hana and her brother go to the same school, but when she comes home, she has to take care of her younger brother and sisters, cook, clean the house, and help her mother. But her brother just has to go to school. When he comes back, he eats and goes out to play football. At the end of the episode, he understands: he offers to help his sister, so that she has time to study.
What kinds of reactions do you hear about the show?
I was in another town and saw people watching Yegna. They said, “You’re really making changes. You’re pointing out things that are happening, but that we haven’t paid attention to, like menstruation.” Many people know that women have periods, but not what actually happens, where to find sanitary napkins or have good hygiene. In rural areas, many people do not even know what a sanitary napkin is! So many girls miss school because they don’t know what is happening to them. In this season, Tsega comforted a new girl at school, who was crying in the bathroom because her uniform was stained from having her period. And she showed him how to make sanitary napkins because she couldn’t afford to buy them. We’re also trying to add some male involvement in this series, because menstruation isn’t just about women.
Has writing these stories changed your point of view on certain issues, has it had an impact on your own life?
Yes, it made me realize that there are a lot of stories I could tell and the power of media. After writing season 5, I started to defend myself in my career and also in my personal life. Moreover, it also gave me an idea that I could turn into a script.
Before Season 5, I was still a follower. I won’t tell you my opinion because I used to feel like my voice, my opinion doesn’t matter. But having the experience of writing an episode and seeing what the girls go through, and then being a production manager, helped me realize that I could lead a team. And the Season 5 team was a success!
The story I want to tell is that in our culture children don’t get much attention when adults are having a conversation. And when you give the wrong answer in class, the students laugh at that student. I want to show people that shaming or telling others to shut up can affect a child’s future career. This culture even affected me. I am working on overcoming my fears and working on this script is a first step in developing my own career.
Veronique Mistiaen is an award-winning journalist based in London, who writes on global development, human rights and social issues for major media in the UK and abroad, including The Guardian, The Times, The Economist, BBC News, Newsweek, National Geographic, Le Monde And The ChicagoTribune. @VeroMistiaen