Review of the Sara Communication Initiative

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A review of the Sara Communication Initiative

for its introduction to Ghana


Johns Hopkins University

Center for Communication Programs


Preface: Sara in Ghana 2
1. Background 4
2. Sara Themes and Episodes 9
3. Formative Research Process 17
4. Program Implementation 23
5. Evaluation of Pilot Episode 37
6. Mid-Term Evaluation 46
7. Commercialization and Sustainability 60
References 61
Appendix 1: Formative Research 64

Process and detailed findings

The Special Gift 72

Sara Saves her Friend 75

The Lioness’ Daughter 79

The Trap 83

Choices 87

The Empty Compound 90

This document is derived from an earlier compilation of the work achieved on the research and implementation of the Sara Communication Initiative (SCI) by Nuzhat Shahzadi, Regional Sara Coordinator, 1996-2001; Dr. Mira Aghi, Research Consultant and Rachel Carnegie, Creative Consultant to the SCI, with input from Justus Olielo and Richard Mabala, Sara researchers and programmers. The final editing of this document was carried out by Rachel Carnegie with inputs by Caroline den Dulk, Programme Communication Officer, UNICEF-Accra and Neill McKee, Senior Technical Advisor, Johns Hopkins University Center for Communication Programs.


The Sara Communication Initiative (SCI) was developed in Eastern and Southern Africa in response to the HIV/AIDS pandemic, focusing on the adolescent female population. When UNICEF Ghana wanted to use this same entry point for programming in Ghana, a tri-partite relationship between UNICEF programmes for HIV/AIDS, Girl Child Education and Rights Protection became apparent. In addition, a partnership was formed with Johns Hopkins University Center for Communication Programs (JHU/CCP) in Ghana, supported by USAID, for Sara utilization and dissemination within the Love Life-Stop AIDS programme, as a component for younger adolescents.

HIV/AIDS has become a major concern in Ghana today. Gender gaps, misconceptions and ignorance, lack of societal responsibility, and lack of proper life skills are exposing youth to risky behaviour, ultimately leading to its spread. In addition, growing disparity between girls and boys in educational attainment also poses a great barrier to the overall development and empowerment of girls and prevents them from developing appropriate Life Skills, such as negotiation, critical thinking, assertiveness, self esteem, and many more. Data suggests that women who have a primary school education delay marriage and childbearing by about one and a half years compared with those who have no schooling; those with a secondary education postpone these events even further. Staying in school has become a major concern for the survival, protection and development of girls in Ghana. Research has shown that out-of-school girls are at much greater risk with regard to HIV/AIDS and other health risks.

One of the principal reasons for increased vulnerability of adolescents to HIV infection is the lack of appropriate information to make correct decisions in risky situations. Patterns of marriage and sexual behaviour vary among cultural groups and the specific needs of young women vary as well. In Ghana, there are some ongoing practices that seriously threaten the development of girls and put them in a vulnerable position. There is the phenomenon of child bondage and a special form of child slavery called Trokosi. There is also increasing concern over the growing migration of girls from the northern part of Ghana to the cities, where they are working as porters in markets, and find themselves in a vulnerable position, open to physical, economic and sexual exploitation.

But whatever the cultural specific issues might be, the need for accurate information and education is universal. Experience so far has proven that information alone is not enough to ensure the development or change in behaviours necessary to stop the spread of the pandemic. Extra effort is now required to ‘get ahead of the virus’ by equipping people, especially adolescents, with Life Skills which they need to decide upon and maintain healthy and safe life styles and practice responsible behaviour. Adolescents also need a supportive environment that will protect and promote their health and development.
The apparent constraints or threats to the development of girls in Ghana can be put together in a rights framework. These relate to a wide range of child rights that require special attention for the betterment of the lives of girls. Rights to education, non-discrimination, rights to protection from sexual exploitation, abduction, violence and harmful traditional practices, rights to health, to protection from harmful and exploitative labour, and rights to life and maximum survival and development. Promotion and protection of these rights will have great impact on the development opportunities for girls.

In order to be able to make a positive impact on all of the above rights issues and ultimately change the situation of the girl child in Ghana, there is the need for an integrated and innovative communication strategy. The underlying behaviours and social context have to be approached in a holistic strategy that is going to deal with the complexity of issues and actors involved. An important challenge is to transfer these abstract rights concepts into the language and daily reality that communicates with the girl and her family in Ghana. In Ghana, there is a lack of approaches for child and adolescent communication, methods and tools that will encourage various types of two-way communication: child-to-child, child-to-parent/teacher, youth-to-youth and parent-to-youth. In addition, children in Ghana (and elsewhere in West Africa) often lack a supportive and encouraging role model to guide them, to motivate them and to be an outlet for their feelings and thoughts.

In considering the various communication strategies that could make an impact on the situation of girls, UNICEF-Ghana thought it to be imperative to learn from other experiences and benefit from existing programmes, such as the SCI. In order to be able to assess the value of Sara to the development programmes in Ghana, there was a need to document the development process of the initiative and the experiences in implementing it as a national communication strategy in other countries in Africa.
UNICEF and JHU/CCP have taken up this challenge to document the development and implementation processes of the SCI, to date. This document will not only help Ghana to plan and strategize more effectively for the implementation of Sara, it may inspire people in other countries as well, helping potential users to understand the power of a multi-media initiative like the SCI. At this point in time there are three categories of uses of the Sara:
A communication strategy to enhance individual behaviours or social change in the community on issues directly related to HIV/AIDS, girl child education, child rights’ protection, etc. Sara is a tool that can stimulate discussion between different groups in the community and bring out sensitive issues or even taboo topics. When the materials are used with good facilitation, a change process will be set in motion. The stories of Sara can reach beyond the girls and boys, involving parents, teachers and other influential figures in the community in a process of reflection, analysis and action on the issues raised.

A national role model for girls’ development and other child rights issues. Because of the attractive format of cartoon characters, that can be adapted to many other forms of popular media, Sara has the potential to gain national popularity and fame, which will increase the impact at all other levels as well. Sara will become a communicator for various development issues through a whole range of media. She will thereby become a role model for girls and an advocate for their rights.

A strategic framework to encourage integrated communication planning. Since the whole initiative is built on an integrated approach to communication and follows a carefully developed communication plan, Sara can serve as a framework for other initiatives to be linked to, stimulating wider partnership building.
It is crucial that the SCI is integrated into existing programmes as a supportive communication tool, and is not regarded as a stand-alone project. The materials need to be used in a well-designed facilitation process, making use of a range of participatory activities, to ensure that Sara achieves her potential impact. So far, too many interventions have been limited to dissemination of materials and “group discussions”. Listeners and viewers need to be involved in the initiative as active communicators themselves.
In addition to the relevance of Sara for a specific country like Ghana, there are also more regional issues to consider here. In the West and Central African Region, there are some regional themes that are related to the programme areas of HIV/AIDS, Girl Child Education and Child Rights Protection. Problems like child migration and slavery, female genital cutting and early marriage are not confined to any single country. These are the types of issues confronting the region that require integrated and regional programming and for which Sara can be a powerful tool.


In Sub-Saharan Africa, many of the rights of children are not recognized and protected by their families and communities. Many children are forced into labour and are pushed into adult responsibilities before they are ready. Their right to an education is often not recognized. Millions lack proper access to health care and protection from harmful traditional practices. They also lack protection from neglect, physical abuse and sexual abuse and exploitation; problems that have been further exacerbated by many years of wars and ethnic conflicts. On top of all this, in the past decade, HIV/AIDS has become the greatest new threat to children’s well being and survival. In sub-Saharan Africa by the end of 2001, there were an estimated 28.1 million people living with HIV/AIDS, including a growing number of young people - 5.7 million females and 2.8 million males between 15 and 24 years of age (UNAIDS, Dec. 2001). For this same age group in Eastern and Southern Africa, females are up to six times more likely to be infected than males (UNAIDS, June 2000).

One of the fundamental causes of HIV/AIDS in Sub-Saharan Africa is gender inequity (SIDA, Nov. 1998; Long and Ankrah, 1996). Not only is the female biologically more susceptible to acquiring HIV (Watstein and Laurich, 1991), women and girls are more vulnerable due to socio-cultural conditioning. In many parts of Africa, the manifestations of this inequity can be seen at an early age. The rights of the African girl child are less recognized and valued than those of the boy. She has fewer opportunities than boys in almost all areas of human endeavor. She is regarded as someone who is "just passing through the home" and consequently the family invests less in her care and development. Her primary role is that of child bearing and nurturing (Mbugua, 2000). At an early age, the girl learns to perform a subservient role and as she grows older she lacks basic psychosocial skills, such as the ability to communicate her wishes assertively, to think critically and creatively, to make decisions and negotiate, to solve problems in social relationships, to resist pressure, and to and cope with emotions and conflict (Carnegie and Birrell Weisen, 2000). There have been many interventions focused on adolescents, yet the gender-based socialization of boys and girls continues to create power dynamics in sexual relationships that put young women at a disadvantage (Blanc, A.K. 2001). This has grave implications for the girl, given the rapid spread of HIV.

In 1994, UNICEF in Eastern and Southern Africa decided that in order to bring about a transformation in the situation of the adolescent female, a dynamic, creative and far-reaching communication strategy was required. In January 1994, a presentation on the development and potential of the Meena Initiative for South Asia (Aghi, 1996; Carnegie, 1996) was given to a regional meeting of the African Women in Development Network. The participants, including the Ministers of Women's Affairs from Ethiopia, Tanzania and Uganda, expressed a good deal of interest in a similar initiative for Africa. Beginning in October 1994, a large number of UNICEF country offices in Africa joined the project by acting as research bases and supplying researchers, writers and artistic talent for the regional design process, and by participating in planning and implementation of the project at national level.

The Sara Communication Initiative (SCI) (McKee, 1996) is a complementary regional project designed to support and reinforce on-going and future program activities supported by UNICEF, its partners and any organization with similar goals. It addresses many of the key articles outlined in the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) (UNICEF, 1990) and the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) (United Nations, 1979). The focus of Sara remains the survival, protection, development and participation rights of the child (see Box 1). However, instead of addressing child rights in an abstract way, Sara articulates these rights in a way that is directly relevant to African communities, using formative research to formulate these in their own terms and language and from their own perspectives.

Box 1: Rights of the Child Represented in Sara Stories

  • Definition of a child (Art. 1)

  • Right to non-discrimination (Art. 2)

  • Right to life, survival and development (Art. 6)

  • Respect the views of the child (Art. 12)
  • Freedom of expression (Art. 13)

  • Freedom of thought, conscience and religion (Art. 14)

  • Access to appropriate information (Art. 17)

  • Protection from all forms of violence (Art. 19)

  • Protection of refugee children (Art. 22)

  • Rights to health and nutrition, and access to health services (Art. 24)

  • Protection from harmful, traditional practices (Art. 24)

  • Right to education which will develop full potential (Art. 28 & 29)

  • Right to leisure, recreation and culture (Art. 31)

  • Protection from child labour (Art. 32)

  • Protection from drug abuse (Art. 33)

  • Protection from sexual exploitation and abuse (Art. 34)

  • Protection from torture, degrading treatment and deprivation of liberty (Art. 37)

  • Protection from armed conflict (Art. 38 & 39)

  • Proper administration of juvenile justice (Art. 40)

Source: UNICEF, 1990

The overall goal and general objectives of the SCI are as follows:

Overall goal statement:

To promote the Rights of the Child and support their implementation and realization, with special focus on adolescent female children in Eastern and Southern Africa (ESAR), and in other parts of Sub-Saharan Africa where the materials are found to be acceptable and appropriate.

General objectives:

To research, produce and disseminate a regional communication package on the Rights of the Child in order to:

1. Create awareness and advocate for the reduction of existing disparities in the status and treatment of girls.

2. Support social mobilization processes designed to realize the potential of female children and to foster their participation in development.

3. Produce a dynamic role model for girls that will assist in their acquisition of psychosocial life skills essential for empowerment.

4. Provide a model for improved gender relationships, beginning at an early age.

5. Communicate information regarding the survival, protection and development of children, including specific messages on education, health, nutrition and freedom from exploitation and abuse.

  1. Build the capacity of African writers, researchers and artists through the development of the Sara communication packages.

Sara experienced rapid growth through core countries in ESAR and spread to West and Central Africa as well (see Box 2).

Box 2: Participating Countries

Eastern and Southern Africa Western and Central Africa

Eritrea* Nigeria

Ethiopia* Ghana (new partner ’01)

Kenya* Ivory Coast

Uganda* Guinea Bissau

Tanzania* DR Congo

Malawi* Cameroon



South Africa*









* Formative research countries

Main source: UNICEF, Sept. 1999

Sara is an example of an “entertainment education” strategy (JHU/CCP, 1990), which seeks to harness the drawing power of popular entertainment to convey educational messages. The SCI illustrates how creative and exciting story lines can be used to promote social issues in an appealing and provocative way. The SCI chose the animated film in video format as the “flagship” medium through which a set of characters and core set of stories would “come to life”. However, in much of Africa, access to broadcast TV remains relatively low, with the possible exception of South Africa. There are an estimated 134 TV receivers per 1000 population in South Africa, compared to an estimated 20 in Botswana, 64 in Cote d’Ivoire, 5.5 in Ethiopia, 93 in Ghana, 26 in Kenya, 66 in Nigeria, 3.3 in Tanzania, and 33 in Zimbabwe (Fillip, 2000). However, there is a tendency to treat TV more as a communal resource, with much sharing and group viewing occurring (DFID, 2002). Recent estimates for radio ownership per 1000 inhabitants are: 355 in South Africa as compared to 154 in Botswana, 161 in Cote d’Ivoire, 202 in Ethiopia, 236 in Ghana, 108 in Kenya, 226 in Nigeria, 280 in Tanzania, and 102 in Zimbabwe (Fillip, 2000).

However, broadcast statistics do not account for the growing informal channels of audio and video distribution in the region. There are numerous informal networks for the distribution of audio tapes and CDs and videos through NGOs, churches, commercial outlets and other channels. Audio tapes, mainly music, and videos are shown through informal transport channels, restaurants and bars. “Video theaters” are quickly growing in small communities. For instance, in Kenya, Sara was disseminated through Regional Reach, a commercial video network with over 300 video players in public places in smaller towns. In addition, there are still film theatres reaching the young, urban, “up-market” sector and mobile video or film circuits owned by private firms, NGOs and governments, which reach the rural, “down-market” sector with entertaining and educational films, as well as advertising (Steadman, 1998).

Broadcast is important in developing awareness and knowledge as a first step. However, it was decided that in most instances for behavior development and behavior change to take place, the use of Sara video, audio and print materials in formal and non-formal educational settings was probably more important than either TV or radio broadcast. Sara learning modules were developed for facilitated discussion groups and training. These include interactive methods that are normally required to develop psychosocial life skills for appropriate behavioral responses to risk situations (Carnegie and Birrell Weisen, 2000). The project team recognized that the behaviors which are responsible for rapid HIV/AIDS transmission in Africa are complex, and that positive and sustained social change and individual behaviour change would be a challenge to achieve (KIT and Safaids, 1998).
It was decided that the complexity of factors required for successful behavior change and positive behavior development required a multi-media, entertainment education approach that would capture the imagination and attention of adolescents and be acceptable to their parents. The Sara stories, it was concluded, must be informative, must motivate people to change and must address the ability or life skills to act in a given situation. The stories also were designed to illustrate the various environmental factors that facilitate or impede positive change, either at the individual or community level. At the same time as Sara was being developed, UNICEF supported the development of a new model to guide work in the area of HIV/AIDS, girls’ and women’s empowerment and any program with a strong behavior change or behavior development component (McKee et al, 2000). Sara was grounded in this model as illustrated in Box 3, below.

Box 3: Behaviour Change and Behaviour Development

Source: McKee et al (2000), Involving People, Evolving Behaviour

As mentioned above, the visual components of the project involved the comic book and animated film formats. In viewing live action films or photographs of reality, people in multi-ethnic environments respond to cultural and social cues such as dress, facial features, language and accents, housing and vegetation that may alienate and distract them. They may be fascinated by what they see but may miss the main message and conclude that the situations posed are “someone else’s problem”. However, with proper formative research, a set of characters, backgrounds and story lines can be designed in animated film and comic book formats which “strike a common chord” across a diverse region. (McBean and McKee, 1996)

The other value of animated film and comic books is that very difficult social issues can be portrayed in sensitive, non-threatening ways, without losing message impact. Careful formative research into such issues was central to the formulation of the Sara concept. In 12 countries over a three-year period, over 8000 people were involved in interviews and focus group discussions to evolve the concepts, characters, names, themes, story lines and visual images for Sara. Research was carried out with groups of girls, boys, men and women in separate or combined groups, depending on the issue. The stories that have evolved come from people in rural areas and in peri-urban slums (UNICEF, Sept.1999). Through this process, the SCI stories were constructed to highlight the real problems facing young people in the region and also to offer solutions, as articulated by these young people and their families and communities.

The themes that underpin all of the core stories of the Sara series are the Rights of the Child. However, child rights expressed in the language of “obligations” often do not translate properly in African cultures. The extensive research undertaken for the development of Sara has unearthed a means of communicating such rights in a relevant and appropriate way to ensure greater acceptance by audiences. The rights to information, freedom of thought and expression, respect for views, and participation of the child in decisions which affect his or her own future, are fundamental in the process of development of the child/adolescent into a healthy adult. By exercising these rights, adolescents develop psychosocial skills, such as communication and assertiveness skills, that are often denied girls through their social and cultural conditioning.
However, both rights and life skills concepts do not provide drama by themselves and they often are communicated in an academic or abstract way. SCI sought to contextualise these in the concrete problems listed below (see Box 4), which were identified as the basic themes for the core stories of the SCI. These problems provide the substance of real-life drama facing adolescent girls in Africa today.

Box 4: Main Problems Faced by the Adolescent Girl in Sub-Saharan Africa

Core Problems:

  • HIV/AIDS and STIs

  • Unwanted pregnancy

  • Early marriage

  • Workload/child labour

  • Sexual abuse and exploitation
  • Push out from school

  • Female genital cutting

  • Sexual initiation rites

McKee, 1996

Related Problems:

  • Poor family life education

  • Poor psychosocial life skills

  • Lack of career options

  • Lack of inheritance status

  • Limited societal expectations

  • Exploitation in employment

  • Violence and abuse, especially in armed conflict

  • Lack of economic opportunities

  • Low access to health care and other social services

Sara is a multi-media project with seven comic books and five animated films, to date. The flagship animated films have elements of realism and drama, blended with serious messages. This combination results in a unique fusion of fun and adventure and an entertaining method of imparting educational content. The Sara character was designed to capture the concept of a “positive deviant” (Blanc, A.K. 2001) as a promising behaviour model for young girls in Africa. Sara, the charismatic heroine of the series, is an adolescent girl living in peri-urban Africa. Like many girls of her age, Sara faces nearly insurmountable socio-cultural as well as economic obstacles in her desire to reach her goals in life. But her aspirations to improve herself and her community, and her quest for alternative solutions to problems, is an inspiration to anyone who encounters her. Sara’s ability to negotiate and persuade and her determination never to give up - even in desperate situations - makes her a dynamic role model for girls; she inspires self-esteem and models the life skills essential for empowerment. Rather than being presented as a victim, evoking pity and sympathy, Sara emphasizes girls’ potential. The stories expose the issues that hinder their development and illustrate the supportive environment which they need to flourish.

As mentioned above, from the beginning it was decided that Sara would be, fundamentally, a project that addresses HIV/AIDS: one of the major threats faced by the adolescent girl in Africa since the mid-1980s. Although most efforts in HIV/AIDS prevention in the early 1990s were focussed on older age groups, the Sara team believed that it was necessary to start at as young an age as possible and that girls, in particular, had to be empowered, recognizing their unequal start in life and earlier sexual activity. However, the series was also designed to be inclusive of boys’ needs and interests, and includes male role models. During its development, the first Sara story, “The Special Gift”, was seen essentially as a communication tool for HIV/AIDS prevention - that is, educating girls and keeping them in safe school environments as long as possible gives them protection from HIV (UNAIDS, June 2000).
All of the subsequent stories were built around themes which had a direct relation to the HIV/AIDS pandemic and its impact on the adolescent girl, although AIDS messages do not dominate Sara stories. It was decided that such an approach would lead to audience fatigue and be counterproductive. Young audiences, in particular, are suspicious of single focused messages which preach to them on issues that are largely defined by adults. Through the regional formative research process (see section 4), Sara stories were defined by young people themselves.
The reality of HIV/AIDS in Africa is woven integrally and/or subtly through the following Sara stories (adapted from MML, 2001):

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