Turn on the TV? How telenovelas help people cope with real life

Tackling sensitive topics through entertainment and fictional characters can make it easier to get people talking about how to deal with complicated or stigmatized problems, like domestic violence.

Can the love triangles, kidnappings, and evil twins of prime-time TV promote positive change? It may be tough to imagine soap operas playing that role, but the format is being tapped to educate people about everything from HIV and AIDS to human trafficking, domestic violence, and conflict resolution – and it seems to be working.

To draw attention to issues like violence against women – which affects half of all women in Central America, according to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights – a Nicaraguan nongovernmental organization created the soap opera "Sexto Sentido," or "Sixth Sense." It first aired in 2001 as a weekly telenovela aimed at young people, and it focused on creating a public conversation around themes like domestic abuse, rape, intimate partner violence, discrimination, and AIDS.

"It turns out that some of these topics are hard to talk about," says Amy Bank, the former executive director for Puntos de Encuentro, the Nicaraguan NGO behind "Sextos Sentido," and executive producer of the series. The drama ran until 2005 but has been aired in 10 other countries, including El Salvador, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Bolivia, and the United States. It is now set to run again – reaching a new generation – in Nicaragua.

Youths are targeted for a reason: They can be deeply affected by violence at home – and a TV program can show people overcoming obstacles viewers may encounter in their own lives.

Using soap operas to publicize social issues can be traced to Mexico in the 1970s. Tackling sensitive topics through entertainment and fictional characters can make it easier to get people talking about how to deal with complicated or stigmatized problems with friends or family.

"We're not trying to tell people what to do," says Ms. Bank. "What we do is model people facing tremendous struggles, showing people solving problems and broaching obstacles that viewers can identify with."

"Sexto Sentido" has six main characters who come from different socioeconomic backgrounds and regions of Nicaragua. One story line focuses on the character Elena, whose father is abusive. Viewers watch as Elena goes from denying the violence to blaming herself for the abuse to eventually confronting her mother about taking a stand.

"It's not your fault," Elena tells her mom, who stands with a dish towel thrown over one shoulder and has an obvious wound on her lip. "Not yours, not the kids, not mine. It's his responsibility."

Her mother responds, "But what do you want me to do about it, Elena? If we throw him in jail it'll just be worse. Who's going to give you money for school? For food? For everything!"

Many women in the region, in fact, take abuse for granted. In Nicaragua, nearly 14 percent in 2006 said there was at least one reason a man could be justified in beating his wife. In Ecuador, the figure was 38 percent.

But Bank says the conversation around violence has shifted since "Sexto Sentido" first aired. Today, "there is much more consciousness that violence and sexual abuse is bad, that it's not 'normal,' " she says. The fact that the show is set to run again in Nicaragua shows that problems remain. "Right now we're in a contradictory landscape," Bank says. "There are more women denouncing violence, which is a positive step; but in many countries, including Nicaragua, the justice system and social services aren't equipped to handle these [denunciations.]"

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