Tsega is a teenager who wants to be a doctor. But the high schooler's parents want her to marry an older man who is well-off – and could support her parents, who are old and not rich.
That's the latest plotline in the groundbreaking soap opera Yegna, which launched its fifth season this spring in Ethiopia.
Child marriage is one of many pressing issues for teens that the show has addressed. Past plotlines have taken on cervical cancer vaccines, menstrual pads and female genital mutilation. It's also a show that seeks to create gender equity in its staff – this season the majority of its writers and directors are women.
The soap opera was created by the charity Girl Effect, as a follow-up to a magazine and radio show launched a decade ago. Yegna is Amharic for "ours." The goal has always been to provide helpful content for teen girls. The weekly show has an audience of 9.8 million, with 44% of the viewers girls age 13 to 15. Currently, Yegna is trying to reach teens in remote areas where TV may not be available, working with UNICEF to set up screenings in schools in 22 villages followed by discussions.
It's always hard to prove that TV can change minds and attitudes. Gavi (the Vaccine Alliance), a partner in developing storylines about the cervical cancer vaccines, hired an independent evaluator, Swiss TPH, to interview girls who watched the show and girls who didn't. The viewers were knowledgeable about cervical cancer than the non-viewers (67 % vs. 36%) and the HPV vaccine (76% vs. 47%) and were also more likely to want to take the vaccine (70% vs. 43%).
To learn more about the new season, we interviewed
Eden (pronounce Ayden) Tigabu, 25, is a script writer for the fifth season of Yegna as well as a production manager and second assistant director. We spoke (in English) on Zoom from Addis Ababa, where she moved from Harar (a small town in the eastern Ethiopia) with her mother and brother after 8th grade to have a better education.
How did you become involved with Yegna?
I always wanted to be a writer, but I studied urban and regional planning at university because my parents wanted me to get a degree and went through a lot to get me there. By chance, I met the head writer of Yegna and got the opportunity to work in production. In season 5, Girl Effect was looking for new talents. They took young female interns and trained them in writing, producing and directing. I trained as a writer and managed the season 5 team, which had more than 35 crew members.
How do you write the scripts?
We sit together, seven young writers and the head writer and executive producer, Emmy-nominated Mehret Mandefro. Every season, Girl Effect gives us a series of topics to address, based on issues faced by teenagers in our country and what has happened in the previous series. We discuss the elements we want to include, the story arcs, the structure, the cliff-hangers. Then we decide which characters will carry the main story line and the sub story lines, and we write the script. Yegna has five main characters – three girls and two boys – each with their own backstory and characteristics.
Which storyline was most meaningful to you?
It has to be the one about child marriage. Girls in rural area often marry young because their parents are poor and struggling to make a living. The character we chose for this topic 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 dedicated to her studies. She wants to be a doctor when she grows up, but her family are making her marry an older guy. I am not going to tell you how it ends because season 5 is still being aired!
I was surprised to see you had a storyline about betting. What prompted that?
Lots of young men bet. They think it's easy money. And older people watching football bet too and get in trouble and it's causing problems in their marriage. It's such a big problem in our country that our government is talking of banning football betting.
How did you handle betting?
This story starts in season 4 with Haile. He is in high school, but his parents are not well off, so he needs to get a job. He got one as a mechanic. In season 5, he starts to earn good money while still in high school, but he doesn't know how to manage 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 it all.
At first Girl Effect didn't approve of that story: they didn't want people to think [betting] was an easy way to make money, but we used that story to show young people the importance of learning how to look after their money.
The show offers a different image of girls and women.
Most people in our country think that girls are not good enough. In the media, when girls are represented, it is as mothers, doing housework. If women want to have a job, they are not seen as bosses. People would rather take orders from a male than a female.
Yegna addresses this in most seasons. In one, Hana and her brother are going to the same school, but when she goes home, she has to look after 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 can get the time to study.
What kinds of reactions are you hearing about the show?
I was in another city and saw people watching Yegna. They said: "You guys are really making changes. You point out things that are happening, but that we didn't give attention to, like menstruation." Many people know that women have cycles, but not what is actually happening, where to find sanitary pads or have good hygiene. In rural area, many people don't even know what a sanitary pad is! So, a lot of girls miss school because they don't know what's 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 periods. And she showed her how to make DIY sanitary pads because she can't afford to buy them. We are also trying to add male involvement in this series because going through menstruation is not just about women.
Has writing these storylines changed your views on any matters, had any impact on your own life?
Yes, it made me realize that there are a lot of stories I could tell and the power of the media. After writing season 5, I have started to stand up for myself in my career and also in my personal life. Plus, it also gave me an idea that I could turn into a script.
Before season 5, I was always a follower. I wouldn'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 girls go through, then being a production manager, helped me realize that I could lead a team. And season 5 team was a success!
The story I want to tell is that, in our culture, kids are not given a lot of attention when grown-ups are having a conversation. And when one answers the wrong answer in class, students make fun of that student. I want to show people that shaming or telling others to keep quiet might affect a child's future career. This culture has 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 a London-based award-winning journalist, writing about global development, human rights and social issues for leading media outlets in the U.K. and internationally, including The Guardian, The Times, The Economist, BBC News, Newsweek, National Geographic, Le Monde and The Chicago Tribune. @VeroMistiaen