Social Change Through Soap Operas

John Stanmeyer/VII/Corbis

Serial radio and television dramas—yes, "soap operas"—are slowly but surely transforming the world. From Latin America to Africa to the Himalayas, they're not being used to sell detergent to housewives, they're teaching people how to lead better, healthier, safer lives. Just last week the Segal Family Foundation pledged $1.6 million at the Clinton Global Initiative to fund a radio soap in Burundi that promotes family planning and spreads practical information about childhood diseases as well as HIV/AIDS. Spanish-language telenovelas have raised the literacy rate in Mexico and have helped rescue kidnapped and trafficked women in Argentina. Washington-based Search for Common Ground has produced what the organization's founder, John Marks, calls "soap operas for social change" in 16 countries, from the Democratic Republic of the Congo to Yemen to Nepal. And a radio drama created by the U.S. company PCI Media Impact in Bolivia has promoted free speech by exploring the webs of corruption, deceit, and repression that led to the killing of a journalist. The most effective dramas, according to Marks, are those deeply rooted in the cultures where they are shown or heard. But there are always some in society who see them as "subversive," he says. "They change attitudes."