Women and Girls Lead goes global, extending outreach to five countries

By Dru Sefton

Women and Girls Lead, a public media–based outreach and empowerment program, has evolved into a broader international effort, seeking to drive positive societal change in Kenya, India, Bangladesh, Jordan and Peru.

The public-private initiative grew out of the national documentary-based campaign created in 2011 by the Independent Television Service with funding from CPB. It is designed to build engagement around issues such as women’s leadership, violence prevention and economic empowerment. Films presented through the initiative include the five-part Women, War & Peace; The Interrupters, about a Chicago woman working to defuse gang violence in her community; and Strong!, profiling a champion woman weightlifter.

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

During an event convened by the Women and Girls Lead Global project in Peru, participants collaborate in drafting a letter to policymakers and parents requesting better access to pregnancy prevention education. (Photo: ITVS)

More than 50 films have been distributed through the initiative so far, according to ITVS, and they have attracted an audience of more than 42 million through broadcast and online distribution. Some 50,000 participants have attended more than 2,000 community events. The project has also attracted around 3,000 local and national partners and 2 million social media followers.

An online film festival mounted this month, #SheDocs, is presenting online social screenings of 12 films from the initiative’s website.

As ITVS rolled out its U.S.-based campaign, it drew interest from funders and others who saw potential to broaden its scope. “Three years ago, we were at the Ford Foundation with 150 NGOs [nongovernmental organizations] talking about our domestic campaign,” said Beatriz Castillo, ITVS international project manager. “The question that kept coming up was, ‘How can we do this in other countries?’” The answer: with support from Ford, the United States Agency for International Development and the humanitarian organization CARE.

When Women and Girls Lead Global kicked off last summer, the expansion was a natural step for ITVS, Castillo said. The organization has spent more than a decade developing relationships with public-interest broadcasters around the world. “We’ve had a documentary film series broadcast in 20 countries; we’ve piloted engagement on issues like water in India, Bahrain, South Africa and Colombia.”

ITVS’s Global Perspectives Project, an international exchange of indie documentaries that launched in 2005, was the first official effort to build engagement around topics with worldwide resonance and impact. The exchange, which brought films to the U.S. and sent American stories abroad, opened the door for a broader effort, she said. “Since then we have received a flood of international films around gender issues, and have developed a strong network of international public broadcasting partners working with us to distribute U.S.-made films.” Through Global Perspectives, “the infrastructure to connect films, broadcasters and NGOs was set in place.”

Films distributed during WGLG’s first three years will focus on one theme: “women and girls lifting up themselves and their communities against heavy odds,” Castillo said. Films include I Came to Testify, following 16 Bosnian women who break their silence about brutal sexual attacks during wartime; Pray the Devil Back to Hell, revealing how Liberian women come together across ethnic and religious lines to protest war; and Taking Root: The Vision of Wangari Maathai, a biopic about the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize.

Such films were discussed during a March 13 event in Washington, D.C., providing a forum for the international development community to discuss the value of using media as a development tool, according to Kimberley Sevcik, ITVS director of international engagement.  ITVS brought its country engagement coordinators and other stakeholders together for “Media as Multiplier: Using Documentary Film to Boost Global Development.”

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

“This work is all tied to longtime ongoing community activities,” Ray said at the event. Through the initiative, which works with NGOs on the ground in each country, “we have the ability to leverage that work on the ground into larger national-level impact.”

In Bangladesh, the project is focused on reducing child marriages. According to ITVS coordinator Mahmud Hasan, 66 percent of girls there are married before they reach 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. Screenings are planned for more than 4,000 students in 100 Bangladeshi schools as well as for officials in several governmental agencies, Hasan said.

Panelists agreed that developing partnerships with effective organizations within each country is an important factor in their success. In Peru, WGLG is collaborating with the United Nations Population Fund and the National Institute for Responsible Paternity to provide better access to sexual and reproductive healthcare and education for young women, said Kathrin Pfeiffer, ITVS’s engagement coordinator in Peru.

Last July, during a workshop that included a screening of She Matters: Women, Girls and Progress, Peruvian participants — including young women and men — collaborated to write 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 project’s impact will be measured by “the extent to which we can make visible women at every level,” from small communities to nationally. She is working to help media in the eastern African republic portray women’s stories and encourage 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 the five countries have participated during this first year of the WGLG initiative.

The Aspen Institute has initiated research to assess the impact of projects in Kenya and Peru, said Robert Medina, senior program manager at Aspen’s Advocacy Planning and Evaluation Program. Researchers are conducting surveys and interviews before and after the projects’ completion. The two countries present researchers with “distinct and unique settings” to study, he said. The issues, environments and partnership dynamics are all different.

Aspen will use a “quasi-experimental” measurement technique, Medina said, questioning groups participating in WGLG and others that did not take part. “By doing that in both countries, we can get at how the campaign made a difference in attitudes and behaviors,” he said.

Questions, comments, tips? sefton@current.org
This updates a story that was previously posted.
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