Teen radio show breaks taboos in Nepal

In a Kathmandu recording studio, young workers sift through piles of letters from Nepalese teenagers seeking advice on everything from unrequited love and homosexuality to drug abuse and HIV.

Two presenters in their early twenties talk animatedly into microphones as they record the latest episode of "Chatting with my Best Friend" or Saathi Sanga Manka Kura (SSMK), one of Nepal's most listened-to radio shows.

The programme, a blend of discussion, drama and music, was launched nine years ago as part of a project funded by the UN children's agency UNICEF to spread awareness among Nepalese teenagers about the dangers of HIV and AIDS.

Since then it has become required listening for young people across Nepal, a deeply conservative, majority-Hindu country where teenage sex and drug abuse are usually taboo subjects.

The show - the first to be produced by and for young Nepalese people - began as a half-hour slot on national radio, considered the most effective medium in a country where around a third of the population is illiterate.

Its no-holds-barred approach to sexual health quickly won it a loyal following among young people and within months, so many letters were coming in that it had to double its running time to an hour.

"Before SSMK started, there was no tradition of talking about such problems in Nepal," said Kaustuv Pokhrel, a former presenter on the show who now works behind the scenes.

"The show was designed in such a way that it felt like your friend talking to you in a non-judgemental way. The hosts talk about anything under the sun - sexual and reproductive health, career or study concerns, family problems, whatever."

Now, SSMK draws six million listeners a week, is the winner of several international awards, and has even featured "Pirates of the Caribbean" star Orlando Bloom, a UNICEF goodwill ambassador, in one of its dramas.

Gillian Mellsop, UNICEF's Nepal representative, said the mainstream media gave little attention to the issues facing young people before SSMK came along.

"This lack of guidance and information on issues that were important to young people left them feeling a little neglected and also increased their vulnerability to risky behaviour," she added.

But SSMK's willingness to tackle any subject has also brought criticism and, on one occasion, the threat of removal from the airwaves after a particularly controversial early episode about masturbation.

"We were accused of putting out vulgar content on the radio, so we invited the station managers in to see the letters we received to show we were not making it up - this really was an issue that concerned young people.

"Eventually they were persuaded, but for a while we had to send them scripts for approval. They said we couldn't use the word 'condom' on the radio, for example, which was problematic."

The format of the show has barely changed over the years - two young presenters, the "best friends" of the show's title, discuss listeners' problems before introducing a short drama in which solutions are found.

But the content has evolved to reflect the changing concerns of its listeners, many of whom were caught up in the civil war between Maoist guerrillas and the state that ended in 2006.

"After a couple of years we began receiving letters complaining that we were focusing on small issues when they country was in such a bad situation," said Pokhrel.

"We had letters from young people who had joined the Maoists and were afraid to leave, and even from girls who had been raped and were too afraid to tell anyone because of the stigma."

The letters are all read and answered, usually with a stock reply giving expert advice on the particular issue the writer is interested in, and a few are chosen to be featured on the programme.

Much of the correspondence comes from young people in rural areas of Nepal, where discrimination on caste, ethnic and gender lines is rife, and where most of the violence took place during the 10-year conflict.

The show used to receive between 1,500 and 2,000 letters a month, but Nepal has seen a dramatic increase in mobile phone usage in recent years and they are increasingly being replaced by text messaging.

Equal Access, the international non-profit organisation that makes the show, has exported the idea to other developing countries including Cambodia, Laos and most recently Yemen.

In Nepal, a new generation of young presenters who themselves listened to SSMK as teenagers have recently taken over on the show.

"I loved listening to SSMK but I never imagined I would one day be presenting it," said SSMK host Swarnima Shrestha, 22.

"It's hard work, and we're under constant pressure because people take what we say so seriously. But to be able to touch even one young life feels great."

News
Netherlands' goalkeeper Tim Krul fails to make a save from Costa Rica's midfielder Celso Borges during a penalty shoot-out in the quarter-final between Netherlands and Costa Rica during the 2014 FIFA World Cup
newsGoalkeepers suffer from 'gambler’s fallacy' during shoot-outs
News
people
Travel
travel
Arts and Entertainment
Sydney and Melbourne are locked in a row over giant milk crates
artCultural relations between Sydney and Melbourne soured by row over milk crate art instillation
PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebookA wonderful selection of salads, starters and mains featuring venison, grouse and other game
Arts and Entertainment
Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux play teeneage lovers in the French erotic drama 'Blue Is The Warmest Colour' - The survey found four times as many women admitting to same-sex experiences than 20 years ago
arts + entsBlue Is The Warmest Colour, Bojack Horseman and Hobbit on the way
News
Two giraffes pictured on Garsfontein Road, Centurion, South Africa.
i100
Environment
View from the Llanberis Track to the mountain lake Llyn
Du’r Arddu
environmentA large chunk of Mount Snowdon, in north Wales, is up for sale
News
Kenny Ireland, pictured in 2010.
peopleBenidorm, actor was just 68
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
News
people
News
Morrissey pictured in 2013
people
News
A scene from the video shows students mock rioting
newsEnd-of-year leaver's YouTube film features playground gun massacre
News
i100
Life and Style
The director of Wall-E Andrew Stanton with Angus MacLane's Lego model
gadgetsDesign made in Pixar animator’s spare time could get retail release
News
peopleGuitarist, who played with Aerosmith, Lou Reed and Alice Cooper among others, was 71
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Financial Control Manager - Regulatory Reporting

    £400 - £550 per day: Orgtel: Financial Control Manager - Regulatory Reporting ...

    Lead Application Developer

    £80000 - £90000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: I am current...

    Senior Networks Architect

    £65000 per annum + 15% Pension, Health, Travel & Bonus: Progressive Recruitmen...

    SAP BW/BO Consultant

    £55000 - £65000 per annum + Benefits: Progressive Recruitment: SAP BW/BO CONSU...

    Day In a Page

    Dress the Gaza situation up all you like, but the truth hurts

    Robert Fisk on Gaza conflict

    Dress the situation up all you like, but the truth hurts
    Save the tiger: Tiger, tiger burning less brightly as numbers plummet

    Tiger, tiger burning less brightly

    When William Blake wrote his famous poem there were probably more than 100,000 tigers in the wild. These days they probably number around 3,200
    5 News's Andy Bell retraces his grandfather's steps on the First World War battlefields

    In grandfather's footsteps

    5 News's political editor Andy Bell only knows his grandfather from the compelling diary he kept during WWI. But when he returned to the killing fields where Edwin Vaughan suffered so much, his ancestor came to life
    Lifestyle guru Martha Stewart reveals she has flying robot ... to take photos of her farm

    Martha Stewart has flying robot

    The lifestyle guru used the drone to get a bird's eye view her 153-acre farm in Bedford, New York
    Former Labour minister Meg Hillier has demanded 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists

    Do women cyclists need 'pootling lanes'?

    Simon Usborne (who's more of a hurtler) explains why winning the space race is key to happy riding
    A tale of two presidents: George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story

    A tale of two presidents

    George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story
    Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover

    The dining car makes a comeback

    Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover
    Gallery rage: How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?

    Gallery rage

    How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?
    Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players

    Eye on the prize

    Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players
    Women's rugby: Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup

    Women's rugby

    Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup
    Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
    Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

    How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

    As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
    We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

    We will remember them

    Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
    Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
    Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

    Acting in video games gets a makeover

    David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices