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Can Film Be a Game-Changer for Women and Girls?

By: Kimberley Sevcik

I’m the Engagement Director for a project called Women and Girls Lead Global (WGLG) that uses documentary film to raise awareness and spark attitude and behavior change around gender issues in Kenya, India, Bangladesh, Peru, and Jordan. Partnering with community organizations on the ground, we train facilitators to screen films about girls’ and women’s struggles and triumphs around the world; to lead conversations about the issues in the film, drawing analogies to community challenges; and to brainstorm solutions to those challenges.


When I tell people about the project, I generally get a two-tiered reaction.

The general population responds to the project’s sex appeal. They find it compelling. Everyone likes film, everyone likes a good story.

Development experts are more skeptical. They find it interesting, but they want to know how it’s making a positive – and measurable – difference.

It’s a question that I’ve been struggling to answer, too, as we round the bend on our third year of the project. As the development world becomes ever more rigorous about tracking outcomes rather than outputs, the WGLG team has been intent on determining whether sharing inspiring stories about relatable characters makes a measurable difference in people’s lives. Because, let’s be honest: screening films isn’t digging wells to provide water to remote communities. It isn’t sending impoverished girls to school on scholarship or offering shelter to abused women.

In short, film doesn’t deliver ready-made solutions.

So what does it do?

As I’ve listened to women coffee farmers in Kenya and teenage boys in Bombay slums discuss the issues raised by documentaries about girls and women, I’ve begun to WGLG Kenya film viewingunderstand that the great value of film as a development tool is its ability to stimulate reflection and conversation. Neither of those things are readily quantifiable, but they are fundamental to creating meaningful, sustainable change. Change that begins inside rather than being imposed from outside.

Film has a unique ability to connect emotionally with viewers – and that emotional connection makes way for off-screen empathy as well, which can be an important first step in creating change. Empathy allows audiences to see situations from a new perspective. When an audience of parents in Patnitala, Bangladesh watches a documentary about a girl in Afghanistan who was married off at age 10, when they see her pulled out of school, beaten by her husband, giving birth at a dangerously young age, when they hear her words of despair, they begin to look at their own daughters differently; and – perhaps – to question a choice that may have once seemed like a foregone conclusion.

Meanwhile, an audience of adolescent girls in Rajasthan, India watching that film might take heart from watching the protagonist confiding in a former teacher about her misery, and asking for help in leaving her husband. Suddenly a window opens for the girls in the audience, their destiny may not be pre-ordained.

The moments in a darkened room after a powerful film ends are an opportunity. The audience has been moved, they have been exposed to new ways of thinking and being. They have seen real people who are struggling with the same overwhelming challenges they face rise above circumstances.

What happens next is critical. We want to seize that moment – of inspiration, or empathy, or possibility – and explore opportunities to bring it into daily life with a call to action.

Bangladesh post film discussion

It might be as simple as asking the audience to talk to one person in their lives about what they’ve learned, as Women and Girls Lead Global has done in Bedouin communities in Jordan, where we have had profound conversations about gender-based violence at home-based screenings. Violence against women is a taboo subject in Jordan, as it is in most places, so even 15 women daring to broach the subject with 15 friends is a meaningful step toward awareness.

In some countries, the call to action is more elaborate. In India, for example, communities are being challenged to identify their most pressing gender issue, and – led by a peer educator – to develop a strategy for confronting it. Three communities will be rewarded with seed funding to support implementation of their solution.

On a recent trip to India, I visited rural communities in the district of Pune, in Maharashtra, to hear ideas for the Change the Story contest. In one community, young women were dropping out of college because they could not bear being sexually harassed day after day on the school bus. To address the problem, the community proposed soliciting local government officials to start a bus just for girls. Another community, concerned about adolescent girls being forced into marriage because of early pregnancy, discussed introducing more comprehensive reproductive health education. A slum community in Bombay talked about creating a safe place for girls to play, so they wouldn’t have to be confined to their homes day and night.

WGLG revolutionary_optimists-01The ideas were inspiring, but what left the biggest impression on me was seeing communities exercise their power and potential to improve their own lives. Following a screening in the slum community of Padma Nagar in Bombay, I listened to a rapid-fire exchange of insights and ideas among a diverse group of community members as they brainstormed ways to address the drug abuse problem among adolescent boys. The conversation had been stoked by a film called Revolutionary Optimists, which features a group of young people learning to lead change in their slum community of Calcutta.

One of the community elders stood up to speak near the end of the event. His voice was tremulous. “This is the first time in my life I have seen my community come together to try to solve its own problems,” he said. “We need to continue this, we can’t let it end today.”

I’m not quite sure how to quantify an old man’s insight that this was an important conversation. But I think that it matters. If only we could figure out how to prove it.

_      _      _

Kimberley Sevcik is the Director of International Engagement at ITVS. She has worked on girls’ and women’s issues for 18 years in both the media and the development sector. For more info on Women and Girls Lead Global, including film clips, please visit: http://wglg.org/films/

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