Caritas Bangladesh is using a folk-music form to reach illiterate villagers in remote areas and confront issues such as child marriage, the dowry system, alcohol abuse, polygamy and HIV/AIDS.
Caritas workers performing folk songs to promote
health and social awareness among villagers
"In the past we have tried to make people aware of (such issues) through seminars and meetings but those didn't work for them," said Suklesh George Costa, Caritas program officer in northwestern Rajashahi.
Caritas has instead adopted the popular "Gambhira" folk song-form to raise health and social awareness, a tactic that has caught the locals' attention, Costa says.
As a result, the dowry system has almost been eradicated from the area and people are more aware about health care and sanitation than ever before.
Under the dowry system in Bangladesh, the bridegroom's family can ask for enormous amounts of cash and valuables from the bride's family, often causing hardship to them.
The humorous Gambhira is very popular in villages of northwestern Bangladesh. It is believed to have originated in worship of the god Shiva and is typically staged by six or seven performers.
Central to the performance is a musical dialogue in which an actor playing a grandfather answers questions posed by his grandson, accompanied by a troupe of musicians.
"Gambhira is a very popular cultural tradition in Rajshahi area and our method has become effective because villagers liked it," Sentu Gregory, a Caritas junior program officer, said.
The Caritas Regional Cultural Team (RCT) has performed its Gambhira in at least 1,000 villages in the Rajshahi area over the past two years. It has addressed issues including education, primary heath care, environmental preservation, sanitation, abuse of women and gender discrimination.
"Before staging a Gambhira in a particular village, we try to identify health and social problems prevailing in that village. We then compose lyrics and musical dialogues with solutions for them," Jahangir Alam, 30, a Muslim and leader of Caritas RCT told UCA News.
"For example, if villagers don't know how to take proper care of pregnant women and newborns, then our Gambhira will address these issues," he said. Alam acts as "grandfather" in the Gambhira which he and his group perform in up to 10 villages a month.
Some villagers told UCA News that the Caritas project has brought many positive changes in their villages.
"People in my village didn't use sanitary toilet facilities in the past and so they often suffered from different kind of diseases. But now they all use toilets and are less prone to diseases," said Dipali Tudu, 33, an Oraon tribal Catholic from Kakon village in Rajshahi.
"Villagers don't drink alcohol now, mothers know well how to take care of their children and themselves during and after pregnancy, and no one likes to get their sons and daughter married at an early age," she said.
Another villager, Muslim Abdur Rahim, 40 from Poba village says he was an alcoholic until he saw the problem addressed by a Caritas Gambhira.
"I was totally careless about my own family," Rahim said. "The Caritas Gambhira changed my life and I've given up alcohol and lead a happy family life now. I thank Caritas for this great initiative."