Storytelling. It’s what makes us human.
From ancient civilisations to today, we’ve used stories as a way of navigating the world. The medium might have changed – we’ve replaced tales and folklore around the campfire with almost-hourly Instagram scrolls, daily YouTube views, and nightly sit-downs in front of the TV. But it’s as much a part of our lives as ever.
And when done in the right way, storytelling can achieve amazing things. By holding up a mirror to real experiences, and creating enthralling storylines and characters to invest in emotionally – you can get an audience to think about their own lives from a new perspective.
And that’s what MTV Shuga is all about. It’s an award-winning campaign centred around a TV drama. We’ve just launched our fourth Nigerian series, directed and produced by the incredible Tope Oshin. And even though it’s a behaviour change campaign – you wouldn’t recognise it as one. It’s as culturally relevant as Flatmates and Skinny Girls in Transit. Relatable storylines and characters are developed alongside young people who feed into all stages of the production process. From auditioning for on-screen parts, helping to write the scripts, and working on set, young people are what make MTV Shuga what it is.
Our storylines are weaved around life-saving health information like HIV prevention, contraception, family planning, and gender-based violence. An MTV Shuga audience is twice as likely to be tested for HIV, and half as likely to have multiple concurrent sexual partners, STIs, or experience physical violence.
Before we produce a series of MTV Shuga, we make sure we really understand our audience. We sit down with teens and twenty-somethings and listen to them talk about their experiences. Their opinions, beliefs, needs, and the environment in which they navigate life. We then work with local partners – including NGOs, local government, and health services – to make sure we’re supporting on the ground what we’re putting out on TV and radio.
One of our key storylines has been sexual assault. In the last season of MTV Shuga Naija, two of our main characters – Faa and Frances – are raped. Their stories are harrowing – but necessary. Like in many parts of the world, sexual assault in Nigeria is not uncommon. It comes in many forms and in many environments: among strangers; among friends; within relationships; and at work too – as Uche Jumbo bravely spoke about earlier this year. Our pre-production research showed that 80% of males believe that if the female doesn’t physically fight back, it doesn’t constitute rape.
One of the things we wanted to get across with these stories is what to do if you’ve been sexually assaulted. Chiefly, seeking medical care and support. A medical facility will provide emergency contraception, STI and HIV tests, counselling, as well as a forensic exam – so that when (or if) you choose to report it, evidence has been collected. Building a support network is vital. Whether this is a network of friends, family, a professional counsellor, or rape survivor group – the trauma you’ve experienced requires that there are people around you to take care of you. And – perhaps most importantly – never, ever blame yourself. Rape is never something that a victim is responsible for. Helplines here in Nigeria include DKT 55059 and DSVRT *6820#. And in Lagos, the clinic ‘Hello Lagos’ provides excellent support.
We also found that there were lots of contraception myths out there. So in this series we made a conscious effort to debunk them. The biggest being that contraception is harmful – that it can cause infertility, cancer or deformed babies. None of this is true. Whilst some contraception methods like the pill can delay fertility for a few months, it has no permanent effect. STIs, on the other hand, can cause infertility if left untreated. Other myths we wanted to smash included: using the pull out method is good enough (actually this is super unreliable – 22% of sexual partners doing this get pregnant); and the pill protects from STIs as well as pregnancy (nope – just the latter).
A social stigma we were keen for our audience to re-evaluate was that carrying condoms as a woman makes you promiscuous. Being one of the only contraception methods to protect from both STIs and pregnancy, condoms appear multiple times in the show – and our storylines portray females who carry them as empowered, informed women who are looking after their health.
Of course, myths and stigma are intrinsically tied to cultural sensitivities. In schools, sex education focuses on ‘abstinence-only’ rather than vital – and more realistic – information about choosing when to (or not to) have sex, contraception, consent, STIs, and HIV. Family planning services can also unintentionally drive people away when some of them require parental consent to give out information.
It is these kinds of boundaries that MTV Shuga wants to push. So as well as our TV and radio series, and online campaign, we are driving our messaging deeper into the community with peer education. We are training young people to teach their peers using MTV Shuga resources – we’ve reached 2000 young people in Lagos State in the past two months. By opening up conversations, we want to help shape a positive sexual health and rights culture.
So far MTV Shuga has achieved some incredible things. And we want to do more. We want to continue investing in young people by helping them tell their stories. By helping them to take up space in a world that sometimes tries to stifle their voices. Knowledge is power, and armed with it – the possibilities are endless.
Georgia Arnold is Senior Vice President of Social Responsibility at Viacom International Media Networks and the Executive Director of MTV Staying Alive Foundation. Ms. Arnold was instrumental in establishing the MTV Staying Alive Foundation in 2005, and was appointed Executive Director in October 2007. MTV SAF is a US & UK charity, set up to tell stories to save lives, creating movements with purpose to improve young people’s health and well-being globally. As part of this, Ms Arnold conceived and created the multi award-winning MTV Shuga – a 360-degree mass-media HIV prevention & SRH edutainment campaign with proven impact. Since 2017, Ms Arnold has been the co-Champion of ‘Fusion’, Viacom’s ERG on Cultural Diversity.