by Louise Morris
Puntos de Encuentro, a Managua based feminist organisation founded in 1990, is making innovations in the way media is used for campaigning having successfully used the telenovela (soap opera) format to address contentious topics for several years. Puntos works to change social and cultural norms that keep women subordinate, focussing especially on informing and supporting young women and girls in Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. Their strengths lie in their multi-dimensional approach to campaigning using a wide range of strategies simultaneously for greatest impact and forming alliances with other relevant organisations. Campaigns are rolled out across the telenovelas, a youth focussed radio show – DKY FM, educational and capacity building programmes such as the Women’s University and La Boletina magazine.
CAWN interviewed Irene Lindenhovius, a fundraiser at Puntos de Encuentro, about their creative approaches and the difficult position feminist organisations are in with Nicaragua’s current political climate.
Puntos de Encuentro has used the media in really innovative ways to tap into youth culture particularly. Could you tell me how the idea for the telenovelas came about?
Almost from the beginning Puntos has been working using media to change public opinion and social norms around issues that we want to talk about and to bring them to a new public. Through our media, we show young and adult women how the things that happen to them are not only a personal issue or a personal problem, but are a reflection of larger inequalities and abuse of power that happen all across the country and the region to a lot of women.
The first telenovela, Sexto Sentido, started in 2001 and was a big success. I would say it was a very brave bet to say we are going to do something big and we’re going to get to a lot of people. It worked really well and it was one of the first times that there was a bigger national production in Nicaragua. It was actually part of a larger strategy at the time called “Somos diferentes, Somos iguales” which uses telenovelas in the first place but then uses that as a part of a larger communication strategy for social change. So this means working together with a lot of organisations and people in the scriptwriting, in choosing the issues that were going to be touched, and so on. Both in the production of the first and second telenovela (Contra Corriente), we tried to work with as many women as possible, both behind and in front of the cameras, so it was also a sort of school to teach women.
We’ve just finished a documentary on the making of Contra Corriente and how it is used as part of a larger strategy and how we use the series to get to younger people. The documentary has been accepted on several film festivals and will soon be released on the internet.
Do you think that using a recognisable genre like the telenovela in Nicaragua allowed you to approach controversial issues in a more palatable way so people weren’t threatened by what they were seeing?
Yes definitely. I mean, out of fear or out of lack of information, a lot of people don’t want to be politically active or don’t want to know anything about feminism and there are a lot of women who are not allowed access to information or events organized by feminist organisations that would inform them on issues that affect their lives and other women’s lives. Telenovelas instead are very much watched, in almost every household poor or rich, there is a television. So it’s a fairly easy way to talk about issues that are normally difficult to address. I have to add, that although there is a potential to using telenovelas to generate social change or public debate, how successful you really are depends on your strategy beyond the TV broadcasting.
Have you had educational initiatives that have drawn on characters and issues from the telenovelas?
Yes. So starting from one of the main storylines in this last telenovela Contra Corriente, which has been on air since 2011 and is now broadcast in almost every Central American country, we have had a campaign going on that started in 2012 around commercial sexual exploitation of young girls and teenagers. As part of the campaign the Contra Corriente cast and the DKY FM radio programme team, visit schools to talk to young girls and boys. We show a special edition of Contra Corriente and start discussions making use of the materials we have. Apart from that we do training with the teachers and leave manuals, methodologies and special editions at the schools so that they can continue to work on these issues with the students.
How important do you feel it is as an organisation to use these modern forms of communication to connect with Nicaraguan youth and to further your objectives in a way that’s not overly didactic?
That’s exactly the point. I think it is hugely important and very strategic to use the same tools that commercial TV and advertising are using to actually get some messages across and get issues discussed from a gender and generational perspective and in a critical way. More than making use of modern forms of communication, we try to use popular ways of communications and we try to use visual and experience-based methodologies to get to more people.
Is social media another area that you are keen to delve into with your campaigns?
This year we’ve had our first social media campaign as part of our current campaign “Alerta y Pilas Puestas” – “Be Aware and Be Ready” against commercial sexual exploitation pointed towards younger girls, adolescents. So we’ve had our first trial of doing a social media campaign which is quite new still in Nicaragua. We do see the importance of using social media, especially to get to people who can influence public opinion, but it is not that widely used here, so we still put our main focus on radio and TV.
I wanted to touch on politics a little because it seems that Daniel Ortega was someone who was ostensibly for women’s rights but recently has brought in some really shocking policies like the abortion ban and I wondered what you felt: Is he becoming compromised by trying to please the church to stay in power rather than focussing on women’s rights?
I think that is very much the issue, it’s very contradictory. Politics in Nicaragua is a very complicated thing. Daniel Ortega is very popular compared to politicians in other Central American countries or compared to the Nicaraguan Liberals of the 1990s. There has been some progress like the 779 law that was passed to prevent violence against women, but on the other hand, therapeutic abortion was abolished two years ago. I wouldn’t say the current government is for women’s rights, there are some social lines but whenever a progressive law is introduced there’s a very clear stance from the church which weighs hugely. For women’s and feminist organisations there’s a very difficult relationship with the government right now, there’s not much freedom of speech on these kind of issues.
Have some of your campaigns been rolled out across other Central American countries?
Pretty much all of them. Puntos has always worked in the Central American region, generally Nicaragua is the main focus and our campaigns are strongest here, but we carry them out in all Central American countries. Our current campaign about commercial sexual exploitation is being carried out in Nicaragua, El Salvador and recently in Guatemala too. It is a very interesting experience because although Central America is a small region with small countries, there is a lot of difference between each country culturally in terms of the language they use and the issues they face. For example, talking about commercial sexual exploitation in El Salvador was a much more difficult thing to do than in Nicaragua because of the presence of gangs – the maras – which commercial sexual exploitation is often directly linked to making it much harder to talk about because of fear. Schools fear to talk about these issues whereas in Nicaragua there’s much more openness. It requires adaptation of the campaign to each different context and working very closely with local organisations.
What are the next initiatives for Puntos de Encuentro?
This year we are still working on our campaign “Alerta y Pilas Puestas. Beyond the campaign we continue to carry out processes of capacity building of the Nicaraguan feminist movement and young leaders across Central America and our programme to influence public opinion through the use of media (TV, radio, La Boletina magazine) also continues. In terms of campaigning [next year] we are moving our focus a little from commercial sexual exploitation to talk more about sexual abuse which has come out of our current campaign as a necessity.
Puntos de Encuentro’s documentary film “En la Casa, en la Cama, en la Calle” has been accepted to the London Feminist Film Festival (November, 2013)