The Revolution Is Being Televised by Teens in Bangladesh

As bloggers and dissidents face violence, a youth-oriented show pushes boundaries to tackle taboos.
On set with the Shornokishoree Youth during a taping of their taboo-busting television show. (Photo: Amy Fallon)
Aug 26, 2016· 3 MIN READ
Amy Fallon is a freelance journalist currently based in Uganda.

DHAKA, Bangladesh—In a brightly lit television studio in this bustling capital city, cameras were ready to roll on a brave bunch of teens hoping their frank debate about taboo issues could help change a country where free speech has grown bloody.

We Shall Change the Time is a TV show presented by the Shornokishoree Youth—also known as “Golden Girls” and “Sunny Boys”—who aim to prepare the nation’s adolescents for the world by tackling issues ranging from menstruation to militancy.

“[We] face many mental and physical changes, get emotional, shy, [and] hide many things from parents,” said one boy as the spotlight shone on him, stressing that adolescents in the country could often be “derailed.” His peers stood around him on the set, listening intently. The show includes a panel of adults, such as health and law experts, discussing a specific issue with the youths.

Bangladesh is about 90 percent Muslim and has experienced a wave of murders of atheist and secular bloggers, writers, publishers, academics, foreigners, and others. Since 2013, Human Rights Watch says there have been more than 50 targeted killings—murders for which the Islamic State or Ansar al-Islam have claimed responsibility, despite the government’s assertion that the groups don’t have a presence in the country.

In that climate, even a program for teens that addresses topics such as child marriage, sexual harassment, and being transgender is daring, to say the least.

“The sister of the prime minister one day called me and said, ‘Why are you doing this? They will be killing you,’ ” Brownia Farzana, chairperson and chief executive of the Shornokishoree Network Foundation, told TakePart.

(Photo: Amy Fallon)

Farzana is a host of the show, which made its broadcast debut in 2012, and a popular TV personality in Bangladesh. She helped form the foundation to offer the show’s audience regular health club meetings, a hotline teens can call during the day when they encounter problems, and an Android app. In total, 750,000 youths across the country between 11 and 18 are involved in one of her foundation’s offerings.

But it’s the TV show that the Shornokishoree Foundation is best known for.

Airing three times a week in Bangladesh in local language Bangla with English subtitles, We Shall Change the Time attracts up to 60 million viewers per episode across several countries, according to the foundation.

Farzana said teens discussed the recent murders in Bangladesh on the program.

“We’ve had maybe eight shows where the topic came up,” said the host, who wore a multicolored traditional sari. “All the time we talk about it and say, ‘This is not Islam.’ ”

Farzana, 40, a wife and mother of three, said some are irked that she appears on TV with her head uncovered.

“People may think you’re not the right kind of woman. You’re inspiring our women to be bold. How will the men handle it?” she said. Some girls and women on her show wear headscarves, and Farzana says the issue is addressed on air in a “fairly soft way.”

Bangladesh is home to 160 million people, nearly 28 million of them teens, according to UNICEF. More than 30 percent of the population lives in poverty.

Bangladesh has the world’s highest rate of marriage involving girls under 15, and a staggering 66 percent of girls are married before 18, according to UNICEF. Jahan Begum, spokesperson for the Ministry of Women and Children Affairs, told TakePart the rate was “going down” but “slowly.”

Teens on the show try to issue the warning about child marriage, hoping to reach particularly rural areas of Bangladesh.

“Adolescents don’t have enough knowledge, and sometimes they’re in danger of child marriage,” said Fuad Hasan, 15, who is from Rangpur district, 186 miles outside Dhaka. “We can inform them.”

To date, the foundation claims to have prevented 84 child marriages through the work of its members, who are informed of upcoming nuptials by neighbors and then talk to Shornokishoree’s adult leaders and the police.

But Farzana said the foundation is not always successful. In one instance, a teen who is a regular on the show attempted to stop a wedding between a 12-year-old girl and an older fisher three times, notifying police because by law the minimum age for marriage is 18 for girls and 21 for boys. A ceremony took place a few weeks later because—as is the case for many young girls—the bride’s father wanted his daughter married out of poverty.

“I know that we can’t solve the problem all the time, but we must have the feeling ‘I tried my level best,’ ” said Farzana.

(Photo: Amy Fallon)

Shahjia Shahrin Anika, 16, one of the program’s anchors, said menstruation was another sensitive issue being addressed because girls need information and pads, which the foundation is now distributing.

“Girls don’t want to talk about it with their parents, so [we are] working to break this taboo,” said Anika, who wore a beige tunic, a navy stole, and navy trousers, her long silky hair in pigtails.

Getting vital information and materials to children is only the first step but a step worth taking despite whispers and warnings.

“I believe if you create awareness, it can be solved,” Farzana said.