Over the years, phrases like voice of the voiceless and including the excluded have been increasingly associated with community radio. But what do they really mean? Unfortunately, their frequent usage by advocates of community radio would not appear to be adequately justified given the gaps between such precepts and actual practices at the field. Apart from diluting their credibility, such phrases are often dismissed as jargon or platitudes.
However, every once in a while there appear silver linings which provide cause for cheer. A recent visit to Bangladesh in May and June 2015 punched the point home. Bangladesh, before the monsoon breaks, is hot. The sultry weather is more conducive to long afternoon siestas rather than venturing outdoors. This visit proved to be a welcome exception. The sight, sound, and action that emerged from the five community radio stations I visited made me sit up. They were eye-openers in more ways than one!
Reena Haridwar belongs to the Dalit Community. She is a first generation literate. Despite acute poverty, unemployment and lack of resources, her father was determined that Reena would study. Amidst her struggle to be educated, Reena’s childhood dream was to be in the media. When Radio Borendro in Naogaon gave her the opportunity through the Women’s Fellowship Program – it was literally a dream come true. Reena says that it has been life changing and hopes to be permanently integrated in the station. She feels her involvement as a producer has made a big difference in addressing the Dalit community’s needs as they are more comfortable talking with her. She is also now respected and seen as a change agent by many in the Ukilpara, Naogaon community.
While field visits often provide useful anecdotal data, this experience struck deeper chords and demonstrated the transformative potential of community radio to be an active agent of social change.
Child marriages are a frequent occurrence in Bangladesh, especially in the rural areas. The roots of the problem lie not so much in traditional or orthodox customs but more out of abject poverty and economic need. The issue was a consistent feature in all the field interactions across all the five community radio stations which were a part of the visit (Padma, Mahananda, Borendro, Mukti and Bikrampur). What was interesting was how listeners and volunteers alike echoed the value of the community radio station in not only providing awareness about the issue but often also actively preventing child marriages from occurring.
The experiences of the community radio stations – ranging from anecdotal data to more conclusive trends supported by documentation and records – underscore the point. A community reporter from Radio Borendro described how she was informed of a child marriage that was to take place three days earlier. After getting details from a community member, the radio station informed the local authorities. The child marriage was stopped and corrective action was taken on the concerned.
Another station, Radio Mahananda started a helpline to combat child marriage with a toll free number 10921 in December end 2014. There were only six calls in the first month, but by January 2015 the number had increased to 109. In February, the number of calls went up to 118 while in March there were 106 calls.
In quite a few of the stations, the data also indicated an impressive number of strike rates. For instance, Radio Bikrampur recorded 35 cases of child marriages in a year which were prevented by the community after they listened to the relevant programmes broadcast by the station. What was also encouraging was the emergence of the community radio station as a trusted and often the initial contact point by the local community in redressing grievances or social problems.
Underlying the changes at the societal and community level, the stations’ transformative impact at the level of the individual was also evident. And in more than just a few cases the individual came from less privileged or marginalized sections of society. The interactions with Reena Haridwar and Taposh Chowdhuri from Radio Borendro and Radio Bikrampur substantiate the point. (See Box).
Taposh Chowdhury is a Dalit youth who is a volunteer with Radio Bikrampur. The evaluator chanced to meet Taposh while he was on peer to peer exchange visit at Radio Mahananda. Like Reena, Taposh is a first generation literate. The youngest in his family, he has been associated with the radio station for three years. For Taposh, Radio Bikrampur has been “transformative” both in terms of providing a platform for the Dalit community to articulate their views and concerns and also at a personal level. He informed the evaluator that there were several policies on reservation and livelihoods that the Government had introduced for marginalized and Dalit groups. However, the Dalit community did not have relevant information about them. This, however, had changed because of the programs produced by Radio Bikrampur. Moreover, Taposh’s participation in the radio station’s activities has also been a bridge for the community who now is more trusting and engage more actively with the community radio station. At a personal level, Taposh affirmed that the station had substantially impacted his life. Apart from improving his confidence and his communication skills, he also pointed out that the station helped him to gain more knowledge on current affairs. Currently pursuing English at the University, Taposh aspires to also study law and join the administrative service. This is also his father’s dream. Like Reena, Taposh is now recognized and appreciated as a useful and contributing member of the community.
While it would be simplistic to view community radio as a magic bullet resolving a complex issue like child marriage, its track record as an effective and credible vehicle promoting good governance would appear to have been recognized by the Bangladesh Government. A recent statement by the Bangladesh Minister of Information, Mr Hasanul Huq Inu, indicated that his ministry would take initiatives to enable community radio stations to be set up in every upazilla (sub-district). This is good news: especially in a country whose tryst with freedom of expression and independent media has been fractured and volatile.
Admittedly there are challenges that confront community radio’s growth in Bangladesh. The cause for cheer is that while community radio in the country may have many more miles to go, some of the milestones it has already registered indicate that the effort has been more than worthwhile.