Panelists testify to inspiring global power of documentary films

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This article has been updated and reposted with additional information.

Women and Girls Lead Global, a public media–based international outreach program, is helping drive positive change in five countries, participants said last week during panel discussions in Washington, D.C.

The public-private initiative grew out of the national Women and Girls Lead, a 2011 documentary-based campaign created by the Independent Television Service and backed by CPB. Partnering with ITVS in the international effort, which launched last summer, are USAID (the United States Agency for International Development), the Ford Foundation and the humanitarian organization CARE.

Participants in a Women and Girls Lead Global event in Peru work on a letter to lawmakers. (Photo: ITVS)

Participants collaborate in a Women and Girls Lead Global event in Peru last summer. (Photo: Kathrin Pfeiffer)

The March 13 event, “Media as Multiplier: Using Documentary Film to Boost Global Development,” provided a forum for the international development community to discuss the value of using media as a development tool, Kimberley Sevcik, ITVS director of international engagement, told Current.

Speakers at the Meridian International Center included New York Times journalist Nicholas Kristof, whose book Half the Sky inspired a four-hour PBS film; Rajiv Shah, who leads USAID; David Ray, head of policy and advocacy for CARE; Judy Tam, e.v.p. of ITVS; and ITVS country engagement coordinators from Bangladesh, Peru, India and Kenya.

The global three-year project presents films that highlight women and girls fighting for better lives to inspire women to tackle cultural barriers in their own countries. “The work is all tied to longtime, ongoing community activities,” Ray said. Through the initiative, which works with non-governmental organizations on the ground, “we have the ability to leverage that work on the ground into larger, national-level impact.”

In Bangladesh, the focus is on child marriages. ITVS coordinator Mahmud Hasan said 66 percent of girls marry before the age of 18. “Parents prefer to marry girls off once they reach secondary school,” Hasan said. “Families are poor, and they can’t feed their daughters. Girls start believing that marriage is their only destination. Their own vision for an education is lost.”

The documentary Inner Strength, which tells the story of a father who defies tradition and sells a cow to finance his daughter’s college education, is now in post-production. Hasan said screenings are planned for more than 4,000 students in 100 schools, and officials in several governmental agencies.

Selecting effective partners on the ground is an important step in the work, panel participants agreed. In Peru, Women and Girls Lead Global is collaborating with the United Nations Population Fund and the National Institute for Responsible Paternity on better access to sexual and reproductive healthcare and education for young women, said Kathrin Pfeiffer, ITVS’s engagement coordinator in Peru.

Last July, after a screening of She Matters: Women, Girls and Progress, workshop participants in Peru — including young women and men — wrote a letter to political leaders and parents requesting access to health information and services for teens, with a focus on pregnancy prevention. “These screenings spark conversations between boys and girls, men and women, who don’t always have the chance to discuss these issues,” Pfeiffer said.

Meanwhile, in Kenya, economic empowerment “is an entry point to have broader discussions about women’s empowerment,” Ray said. “We use the films to catalyze those conversations.”

ITVS Kenya Coordinator Josephine Karianjahi said the measure of impact “is really the extent to which we can make visible women at every level,” from small communities to nationally. The work is helping media in the eastern African republic better tell women’s stories and encouraging leaders “at highest levels of influence” to address what they are doing to help women to lead more effectively, she said.

Similar outreach is spreading a message of empowerment globally, Sevcik told Current. So far, more than 11,000 people at 148 screenings in five countries have participated during this first year of the initiative.

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Correction: An earlier version of this post said that the documentary Inner Strength was viewed by students and government officials in Bangladesh.The film is still in post-production, with plans for those screenings.

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