American cable television channel MTV is launching drama series in Egypt and in India with storylines on female genital mutilation, child marriage and sex work with the aim of generating debate around issues often seen as taboo.
Both series by the Viacom-owned youth entertainment broadcaster will feature soundtracks to appeal to young audiences and popular local actors who will be trained on the issues to help stimulate debates via social media.
“We will be using gripping plots based on true stories from young people so that we can destigmatize issues, debunk unhelpful stereotypes and catalyze social change,” said Georgia Arnold, head of the MTV Staying Alive Foundation.
Egypt has one of the highest rates of FGM in the world, and progress on reducing child marriage has stalled, with the practice even rising in some regions, experts say.
In India, thousands of poor young girls are forced into sex work, often tricked by traffickers who lure them with promises of good jobs or marriage.
Both series – expected to air in 2018 – will also include plotlines around family planning and gender-based violence.
“In India, the cultural taboos around being able to talk about these issues, and a tendency to push them under the carpet, needs to be addressed,” said Sudhanshu Vats, CEO at Viacom 18, MTV’s parent company in India.
He said the name of the show in India, MTV Nishabdh, meant “not spoken.”
The dramas are spin-offs of a popular African series MTV Shuga which returns to Nigerian screens next year for a sixth season with an emphasis on contraception and family planning.
Stars who have appeared in MTV Shuga include Mexican-Kenyan actress Lupita Nyong’o, who won an Oscar for her role in the 2013 movie “12 Years a Slave”, and Nigerian pop star WizKid.
Arnold said MTV Shuga, which is supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, had already shown the power of entertainment to bring about social change.
A World Bank study in Nigeria showed viewers were twice as likely to get tested for HIV, she said.
Although Egypt has outlawed FGM, nearly nine in 10 girls and women have undergone the widely condemned practice that involves the partial or total removal of external genitalia. Some argue it is a religious requirement but it is not mentioned in the Koran.
Egypt has also banned child marriage but around 17 percent of girls are wed by their 18th birthday and 2 percent before they reach 15.
Arnold hoped the show, which will be offered to other Arabic language broadcasters, would change attitudes around FGM.
“I’m really excited to be able to tackle this issue,” she added. “It looks like things are shifting slightly, but there is an enormous amount of work to be done culturally.”