Young Afghan villagers Zarlakhta and Jamil would like to marry. But there is a big problem: Zarlakhta’s father is deceased and her uncle Akram is dead-set against the union, fearing that his family will lose good farm land that, in a marriage, would transfer to Jamil’s family. Akram is so opposed to the marriage that he is trying to fix Zarlakhta up with his son Khudaidad to keep the land in his own family, and when that scheme doesn’t work he shoots Jamil. Jamil survives, and Akram flees the village with his family. Through it all, Zarlakhta and Jamil manage to stay together, and they learn how to defend their rights in Afghanistan’s complex and often confusing justice system.
This story of love, property, and the perseverance of youth against injustice in a valley village is the first plot line in an unusual radio drama being aired across Afghanistan, with a weekly broadcast discussion of the rule-of-law and justice issues behind the village conflicts. In close collaboration with Afghan partners, the U.S. Institute of Peace (USIP) has developed and manages the program, “One Village, A Thousand Voices.” It is heard in Pashto and Dari on Afghanistan’s most popular radio network, Radio Azadi, on Mondays and repeated on Fridays. A call-in discussion segment, with a rule-of-law specialist on hand to comment, follows each Friday airing.
USIP and its Afghan partners are using radio as a means to encourage Afghans to maneuver through their often difficult, hybrid justice system—traditional, informal justice mechanisms along with more formal, state-based courts—in ways that resolve their disputes without violence. Presenting real-life conflicts and solutions entertainingly allows the series to reach a broader audience.
“This is about helping people in local communities find a peaceful way forward,” said Michael Dwyer, the project designer and a senior program officer at USIP’s Center of Innovation for Media, Conflict and Peacebuilding. “Frontal approaches to discussing these issues with the general public don’t necessarily work well. The series really engages Afghans and recognizes that the answers to their justice problems will almost certainly have to come from the Afghans themselves.”
Radio is the primary means of conveying information and entertainment on a large scale in underdeveloped, mostly rural Afghanistan, and “One Village, A Thousand Voices” is transmitted on shortwave, AM and FM, satellite and Internet.
The show features young Afghans struggling to make their voices heard in village-level disputes. Each story is fictionalized and is meant to entertain, but it is wrapped around rule-of-law and youth-empowerment themes drawn from USIP’s own training experience and analysis in Afghanistan.
The program, which first aired on April 29, is designed to reflect a theory of social change developed from USIP’s past rule-of-law research in Afghanistan. Young Afghan adults are starting vocational schools and organizing youth groups, and they are being sought out by others to help resolve disputes. Through workshops with justice and youth organizations, USIP and its Afghan partners concluded that by assisting the huge population of Afghan young people to seek constructive roles in community discussions on justice issues, progress can be made in two respects: More conflicts can be addressed satisfactorily today, and the country’s justice system will become more open to helpful reforms in the future. The radio program emphasizes solutions that call on the resources that the country already has rather than on funds from overseas.
“One thing that makes this series different from others is its connection to a theory of change, one drawn from our recent work in Afghanistan,” said Dwyer, a former radio journalist with nine years of experience in Afghanistan. “We took the time to do the research.”
The effort reflects a new standard in the field. “We are trying to provide a model for peacebuilding in which a thoroughly researched and developed radio drama can deliver results,” said Dwyer.
The series is grounded in rule-of-law and youth empowerment curriculums developed through USIP’s work in Afghanistan for more than a decade. The Institute’s training curriculum for youth justice advocates was revised and focused on 12 topics, including “family law” (such as marriage, divorce, inheritance, use of the criminal or community justice systems for different types of disputes and property law, among others). Each radio drama episode reflects aspects of these topics. The curriculum provides writers and producers with key learning points, real-world legal examples and carefully presented cultural context. The curriculum is reviewed first by USIP staff and then by a Kabul University law professor in Sharia and civil law, an Afghan family court judge, a local nongovernmental organization partnering with USIP and a leading Afghan women’s rights organization.
The other curriculum priority—youth empowerment—reflects USIP’s work with Afghan youth organizations. It starts with basic questions: Why are some youth accepted as participants in village decision-making, and how did they overcome the resistance of tradition-minded elders? This part of the curriculum aims to show Afghans the sort of skills, resources and tactics that youths can use to represent their views and interests and advance the slow process of social change. “One Village, A Thousand Voices” is reflecting activism by young Afghans to make life better and seek justice in their villages. “We’ve started to see young people do things on their own within their own communities,” said Dwyer. “We’re taking our cues from Afghans themselves.”
The curriculum priorities are woven into the story lines by professional writers from USIP partner Equal Access, an international NGO specializing in communications for social change. USIP’s Afghan staff in Kabul supervises the writing, production and broadcasting. The first of the three, six-part stories dealt with a hoped-for marriage and property. The second, airing now, charts what happens when a local commander seizes some land and restricts the flow of water to a neighbor. The third follows a criminal case involving violence in the village and the difficulty of sorting out how the dispute should be dealt with. The series is currently scheduled to continue until the end of August.
Engaging listeners is seen as critical to the success of the series. “To keep radio drama interesting, it is important to incorporate comedy, love, tragedy and other artistic components—or else they would tune their radios to some other channels,” said Zabeehullah Jalili, a program manager with Equal Access in Kabul.
Each episode also concludes with a question asking the audience for ideas that could be written into a future scene, including methods of resolving conflicts. “Participatory radio drama is a new idea and has not been experienced anywhere else in the world,” Jalili said.
The program’s focus is on real-life struggles. “The idea is not to trivialize things that really do hold people back and to show a dignified struggle for happiness and peace in whatever way it comes up for young people,” said Kayhan Irani, an Emmy Award-winning writer and theater performer who is the series consultant. “People love to engage with stories and themes that are close to home. This is especially true for people who don’t see themselves, or their issues, represented in media.”
Irani said that the program’s goal of social change leads to a different style of storytelling. “We aim to show a process of discovery. We organically write the stories as our characters build the necessary knowledge and capacities to take on bigger issues and responsibilities,” she said. “We are looking at the character and his or her actions and thought processes as a model for youth listeners.”
The approach seems to be appealing. Audience participation is growing, and callers are now referring to the show’s characters by their radio names. A recent episode attracted 110 calls within 30 minutes.
The audience interaction is central to the program’s purpose. “People call in to the show and say they have a problem that they don’t know how to solve—where and how to go to a court for justice,” said Basharat Rahimullah, a senior media officer at USIP’s office in Kabul who helps supervise the writing and production of the program. One caller described a tangled dispute involving a widowed father of two adult children who is trying to withdraw their inheritance rights; after his wife’s death, the father remarried and had more children with a second wife, recalled Rahimullah. The caller received some immediate ideas on how the children of the first marriage might pursue the matter in court or elsewhere.
Another good sign is that a growing share of callers to the program—especially to an off-the-air voice-recording system—are women, said Rahimullah. That represents more than ordinary effort on their part in a country where rural women often lack access to a telephone, may be illiterate and could have good reason to be afraid of offending male members of their families.
Overall, the project aims to encourage those Afghans who want to have a greater say in their own lives and communities. “We want to see a demonstrable increase in young Afghans saying they know how to identify tactics and resources so they can move toward active decision-making, so they understand how they might navigate the system,” said Dwyer. “We want to help inspire young people to act and show leadership peacefully.”
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