Radio Free Nepal

An S.F. organization is providing radios and radio programming that just may save lives a world away

From its offices in the Presidio, Equal Access creates original radio programming about HIV/AIDS, trafficking, and myriad other topics that are rarely discussed in Nepal. Then, using satellite technology from the WorldSpace Satellite company, the programs are broadcast to some of the globe's most rural people -- to whom Equal Access has distributed thousands of satellite radios. In areas with no electricity, radio receivers are solar powered.

Equal Access provides programs and radios to communities in Nepal, India, Afghanistan, Cambodia, and Tajikistan. In Nepal, more than 650 satellite radios have already been distributed to places so rural that populations are often in the dozens and the concept of satellite radio is described as a miracle from God.

The organization's radio programs use soap opera and chat show formats to avoid preachy medical messages. Instead, Equal Access creates entertaining shows to help people understand complex, growing social and health care problems, like AIDS.

Equal Access' offices are nestled in the Presidio.
Paolo Vescia
Equal Access' offices are nestled in the Presidio.
A group of Nepali women listen to the Equal Access 
radio drama Kura Khasra Mitha.
Courtesy of Equal Access
A group of Nepali women listen to the Equal Access radio drama Kura Khasra Mitha.

"The information on health care and HIV prevention going out through radio is very important in Nepal," says Nirmal Rijal, the country manager for Equal Access Nepal. He cites radio as the country's main information source due to the topography of Nepal's mountainous landscape as well as the low literacy rates of much of the population.

In addition to programming and broadcasting vital and entertaining information for Nepal, Equal Access has also partnered with Nepali organizations that create listening groups in each of the areas that have been given satellite radios.

"We don't just do mass media, we involve communities in conversations," Goldfarb says.

In the small village of Ratomate, which is only a few miles outside of Kathmandu, issues of women's empowerment, HIV/AIDS, and trafficking are of constant concern.

For the last two years, women and teenage girls have gathered around their Equal Access satellite radio to listen to the programs. Favorite among them is the drama Kura Khasra Mitha, or Let's Talk Straight. Thuldidi, the main character, is a smart, bold woman who has come to inspire and inform the women of Nepal about issues of empowerment and HIV/AIDS.

Thuldidi was featured in a 136-part series that is currently being rebroadcast all over Nepal. The show focuses, in part, on reducing stigma for women and people with AIDS. And in the last episode of the show, Thuldidi reveals that she is HIV-positive.

In Ratomate, one member of the listening group said that after learning Thuldidi was HIV-positive, she treated a young woman in the village with HIV differently.

"We learned from Kura Khasra Mitha that you cannot catch AIDS just by touching people, and we also learned that it is very important to care for people living with HIV/AIDS. They need our compassion," she told her Equal Access facilitator.

The shows soon became so popular that the government-controlled FM Radio Nepal partnered with Equal Access, broadcasting programs in prime-time spots on 18 different frequencies. Today more than 9 million Nepalis regularly listen to the radio shows.

"What Equal Access has achieved in Nepal is amazing," says Purna Thapa, who is affiliated with the Ministry of Health in Nepal. "They have done brilliantly for the people of Nepal, who need this information almost more than anything else."


In 2005, AIDS killed 3.1 million people and more than 4 million people were newly infected with HIV worldwide. The pandemic has reached a pivotal point in Asia, where the estimated number of people living with HIV grew by 25 percent in the last two years. The numbers are similarly skyrocketing in Nepal. But in a country of 24 million, Kathmandu's Teku Hospital has the nation's only ward for AIDS patients.

Nepal's government has long been quiet on the issue of AIDS, but as the numbers mount, the small Himalayan country will not be able to ignore its epidemic much longer. More money, treatment, clinics, and outreach are sorely needed throughout Nepal. But, like Reeta, what Nepalis need most is information.

Equal Access is one of many organizations working to eradicate some of the hardships of Nepal, but it is one of the few that have been able to continue working uninterrupted by politics and the changing face of U.S. AIDS funding policies.

Like those in many South Asian countries, Nepal's AIDS epidemic has for decades remained concentrated among the high-risk populations of sex workers, intravenous drug users, and migrant workers. But the country is now on the brink of falling into a generalized epidemic -- a situation that the infrastructure of the small and already conflict-plagued nation could not endure.

The World Bank reported in 2001 that the trafficking of Nepali girls to India is a primary cause of what will be a full-blown African-style AIDS epidemic in Asia in the next 10 years. In Kathmandu, HIV rates among female sex workers have increased from less than 2 percent in 1990 to the current rate of more than 20 percent.

Adequate prevention efforts that provide sex workers with everything from methods for negotiating the use of condoms to educational outreach and treatment could mean the difference between an unstoppable generalized epidemic in Nepal and the ability to reverse the numbers.

Michael Hahn, the director of UNAIDS (the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS) in Nepal, warns that AIDS will be the main cause of death for the 15-49 age bracket in the country within 10 years, especially as ignorance of the disease remains high. A recent government survey revealed that only 72 percent of males and 49 percent of females had heard of AIDS.

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