Every morning, the Peruvian Amazon wakes up listening to the radio. Radio is the highest reaching media outlet in the area: 81 percent of the population listens to radio programs and newscasts, according to a study in the area of Loreto.
“Here in my community, Mrs. Norita is doing real well with her fish farm,” says a woman in a letter that´s being read on air. “When she sells her fish, she is going to send her daughter to school so she can get ahead and be something in life.”
The letter writer is one of 500 promoters in a community network that reaches 50 villages around the Tigres and Marañón rivers. They share their communities' experiences in letters such as this. Their experiences are then dramatized in a radio soap opera known as Bienvenida Salud (Welcome Health), which educates through entertainment.
Welcome Health is the most successful project of Minga Peru, a non-profit Peruvian foundation that Eliana Elías, a specialist in social communication, created in 1998. Minga produces and distributes the radio soap opera and promotes several training programs sponsoring health and human rights projects for women and their families.
During a seminar at IDB headquarters, Elías shared with Bank staff the “Minga Model in Communications for Health and Social Change” and testimonies from women in the Peruvian jungle.
She started her work in the jungle in 1991, participating in a health, sanitation and cholera prevention project. While doing that, she became aware of the importance of producing messages locally. Elías lived and worked in the rural area of Loreto, where she learned from farmers, local healers, missionaries and nurses. She gained first-hand understanding of the needs linked to reproductive and preventive health.
In the Peruvian Amazon, girls become sexually active at age 13. The average fertility rate is 7 children per woman, and in some cases escalates to about 14 children per woman. The national average fertility rate in Peru is 2.8 children per woman.
With the help of other professionals and women in the communities, Elías launched the soap opera and then linked to it health and human rights components and training programs. Since then, many young women have postponed their maternity, and mortality rates among children and pregnant women have decreased significantly.
The radio show combines communication and education, seeking to promote gender equity and reproductive rights among women in the Amazon.
The real-life stories of the women also focus on cultural identity, domestic violence prevention, and management of forests and the environment.
“The core of the communication model is the radio show,” Elías notes, “which allows us to be in touch with the community, starting with the nearly 5,000 letters we have received. These letters, read on air, feed the show.”
This experience reaffirms the influence of communications as a powerful tool for social change, according to Elías. “Those who have always passively received other people's messages now become players and creators of their own messages. This kind of communication is empowering because it lets people see themselves as they really are; it lets them express themselves and finally exercise their citizenship.”
The listeners who are chosen to become promoters go through a training program that involves productive and income generating projects and environmental protection. Programs include training in agribusiness, farm maintenance, forestry, sewing, handicrafts and other skills.
After two years of training, promoters become eligible for microfinancing to set up a small business. Minga facilitates the financial and technical resources for these activities.
According to Enrique Agnini, coordinator of training projects for Minga, setting up a fish farm costs about 2,500 soles or $714. “In a year with a good harvest, income from the fish farm can double this figure,” he adds.
Six and a half years ago, prior to Minga Peru's creation, many of the now listeners of Welcome Health hadn´t heard about self-esteem and didn't know they had rights. Today, many women in the Amazon feel they own their own lives. And their hopes, they say, are “as big as the river.”