We are all guilty of it. Whether it be Big Brother Africa, Keeping Up with the Kardashians, Project Fame, or The Bachelor, there is just something so tantalising about the suspense and drama of reality television that drags us all in. Ironically, the reason why reality TV is so much fun to watch is that the lifestyles portrayed are actually the farthest from the reality of most people. Unfortunately, I will not be given the opportunity to simultaneously date 20 women or be involved in any sort of rose ceremony (The Bachelor). But hey, ABC, hit me up (don’t tell my girlfriend).
The lack of real-world benefit that these TV shows bring us is what makes the relatively new TV show Shuga so special. The fantasy/reality TV show targeting youths is produced by MTV’s Staying Alive Foundation as a part of a multimedia campaign to spread sex education and HIV/AIDs awareness. Filming of the series was moved to Nigeria, dubbed “Shuga Naija”, in 2013 and it is now broadcast on 87 television channels to more than 500 million viewers (MTV Staying Alive Foundation) This viewership is about as large as the combined populations of the United States (318.9 million), the United Kingdom (64.1 million), South Africa (52.9 million), Kenya (44.3 million), and Angola (21.4 million) (World Bank Development Indicators).
In Nigeria, 3.5 million people currently live with HIV and new infections are unfairly disproportionate toward females. In adults (15+), women account for 56.9% while men account for 43.1% of new HIV infections; and in adolescents (10-19), girls account for 68.7% while boys account for 31.3% of new infections (UNAIDS, 2015). The reason for this unfair balance is largely due to structural and socioeconomic challenges that place females in Nigeria at a disadvantage.
Young girls are less likely to be informed about HIV/AIDs as only 66% of girls are enrolled in primary school (70% for boys) and 49% are enrolled in secondary school (56% for boys) (UNICEF, 2015). Additionally, poor females are especially at risk of being targeted and exploited by wealthy older ‘sugar daddies’ who are more likely to carry and transmit the disease. The data corroborates this notion as the proportion of young females (15-24) who are fully knowledgeable about HIV/AIDs is 17% less than young males, and the proportion of adult males (15-49) with multiple sexual partners is more than five times larger when compared to adult females (UNAIDS, 2015).
This is where the TV show Shuga comes in. Preliminary results from a recent study analysed the effects of watching the show by viewers in southwest Nigeria. It showed that Shuga improved knowledge of HIV/AIDs, and had a positive influence on the viewers’ attitudes towards people living with HIV/AIDS and sugar daddies. It also resulted in behaviour change on the primary goals of HIV testing and reducing risky sexual behaviours. Specifically, those who watched the show were a third more likely to report getting tested for HIV and twice as likely to get tested within six-months after the viewing. Moreover, the show led to reduced sexual partners and new infections of chlamydia among female viewers (1.3% versus 3.1% in the control group) (World Bank, 2016).
While full results of the study are expected to be released soon, it is safe to say that Shuga is a game changer in how we seek to prevent HIV/AIDs, or any other disease or hazardous behaviour for that matter. By integrating education with pop culture that can cross borders and wealth classes, we can improve development outcomes by putting the power in citizens’ hands, especially women. TV shows such as Shuga are also likely to be less expensive than conventional in-country HIV/AIDs education programmes as advertisements and merchandise typically cover initial costs to produce TV shows and may even make a profit.
The producers and select stars of Shuga plan to be in attendance at the 2016 International AIDs Conference (IAC) in Durban, South Africa, which starts today and extends to the end of the week. The show fits in perfectly with this year’s conference slogan “ACCESS, EQUITY, RIGHTS – NOW”, highlighting the need to draw more attention to marginalised groups, such as women, in the HIV/AIDs epidemic if continued progress is to be made. You can catch me at the IAC as well – I’ll be the one with the autograph booklet, fanatically searching for Mohau Mokoatle.