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Soaps Save Lives in Third World, Producers Say
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Nov 18, 8:14 am ET

By Jill Serjeant

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - If you thought soaps were just about sultry sex and incredible plot twists, then think again.

In parts of the Third World, television soap operas are saving lives, promoting social change and leading the fight against AIDS -- and mostly without even peeping into the bedroom.

In India, "Detective Vijay" tackles issues ranging from wife-beating, the education of girls, female empowerment and HIV/AIDS in a soap opera aimed at rural males that has became one of the country's top 10 programs.

In South Africa, the seven-year old soap "Soul City" is watched by two-thirds of the population and has ventured into everything from AIDS and alcoholism to diarrhea and depression.

"One shanty town near Pretoria has renamed itself Soul City because of the influence of the program," executive producer Agnes Shabalala told an international "soap summit" in Los Angeles last week for people involved in the shows.

In China, the daily drama "Ordinary People" has raised issues such as the traditional Chinese preference for sons, the mistreatment of women and the ostracizing of those with HIV/AIDS.

"We like to create a good story with a social message. Of the 1.3 billion population in China, 800 million watch our show every day," said Yan Jiande, producer of "Ordinary People."

U.S. soaps have incorporated social issues into popular entertainment for years, often exporting their series around the world.


But speakers at the "soap summit" are benefiting from an innovative program devised by the U.S.-based nonprofit agency Population Communications International (PCI).

PCI works with governments, nongovernmental organizations and individual radio and television stations worldwide to fund and create locally produced soaps to inspire and motivate social change in nations as diverse as Peru and Pakistan.

Sonny Fox, senior vice president for PCI's U.S. arm, said entertainment was the "magic weapon" in educating and changing attitudes in nations where mass television is a relatively recent development.

"Soap summit" participants said some of their biggest challenges were the cultural, and sometimes political, sensibilities of their target audiences, particularly in the fight against HIV/AIDS where infection has reached pandemic proportions in some nations.

Speakers at the meeting said an estimated 5.3 million people in South Africa now have the HIV infection, and about 4.5 million in India.

Jiande said that while the Chinese authorities were very supportive of "Ordinary People," "they have said we could show AIDS as something contracted through drugs or blood transfusions, but not through a sexual relationship."

"The depiction of sexual relations is not acceptable either to rural societies, or to the government. Ten years ago, even a scene involving kissing would be cut," Jiande said.

Devika Bahl, creative director of the Indian soap "Detective Vijay," said it was still taboo in India to discuss homosexuality and the show's writers have yet to explain to viewers how their hero became HIV positive.

"That is a challenge for us. We can't really show kissing on screen. The maximum acceptable is a peck on the shoulder. So the sexual route is not going to be acceptable.

"We need to find ways of saying things that are culturally acceptable, otherwise the message is just not going to get through," Bahl said.

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