Five Ways To Use Media To Challenge Social Norms: Lessons From Kashf Foundation’s Innovative Use of Television for Social Impact
As I’ve been sheltering in place managing the impacts of the global pandemic and witnessing growing protests over racial injustice New York City, I’ve been thinking a lot about the power of the media to propel social change during a crisis. Last year I wrote a NextBillion article about the power of storytelling to influence social norms. Soon after it was published, I spoke with a colleague who runs a microfinance organization in Tunisia. She too had been thinking about how to harness the power of the media to change the gender norms that prevent women microfinance clients from achieving their business goals – including men’s traditional lack of support for women entrepreneurs, opinions around women’s livelihoods and economic rights in general, etc.
Our conversation made me realize how much widespread interest there is in the topic of using media for social change. Being homebound, I decided to research organizations that are already making an impact through narrative storytelling, to see how we might learn from their work and inspire others to do the same. My friend directed me to Kashf Foundation, a Pakistani microfinance organization that has earned a name for itself as a producer of provocative and entertaining television shows focused on challenging harmful social norms. Kashf’s productions are changing perceptions on gender and sexuality, and shedding light on taboo subjects like human trafficking and sexual abuse.
I spoke with Roshaneh Zafar, President and Founder of Kashf, about their creative process, the challenges she and her colleagues faced, and the impact of their work. While every market is different, we feel the lessons from Kashf’s success are a useful foundation for those organizations that are exploring social impact through entertainment. Here are a few of her suggestions:
Partner with creative experts to lead the way
There is no doubt that a typical loan officer in a microfinance institution could tell you countless heart-wrenching stories about the families they serve. But turning those stories into a compelling drama is a job for the experts. Kashf hired well-known creative teams for each of its four dramas, and spent several months researching the different themes to be covered. It also partnered with Pakistan’s largest television networks, HUM TV and ARY (which have a combined viewership of 30-50 million), to ensure their stories would reach the broadest possible audience.
Take time to research your stories
According to Zafar, the more sensitive the topic, the greater the difficulty in gathering the stories. For example, finding business-related stories is a lot easier than stories about sexual abuse or human trafficking. The script for its drama on human trafficking took 18 months to develop. Taking the time to create relatable and convincing stories, however, pays off. Kashf’s dramas have earned critical approval both locally and internationally.
Keep careful watch over the story development
Throughout the process, Kashf plays the critical role of the “conscience” of the productions. With each creative team and each production house, Kashf keeps a close eye on the characters and plot development. In one instance, a script writer wanted to include a character who operated a business creating and selling burqas. To avoid making a statement about whether or not women should cover their heads, Kashf insisted on using an alternative business for the story. In another example, a production on human trafficking was threatened by TV channels’ reluctance to air it, due to a storyline that involved a brothel. Kashf stepped in to make the case that it was essential to include a brothel as a critical element of the drama, and was allowed to include it in the story. The program will be broadcast in January 2021 on a TV channel that’s run and owned by a woman who had the guts to put it on the air.
Experiment with different styles
Kashf Foundation has experimented with different styles of storytelling, knowing that the taboo themes they focus on would need to push beyond the limits of the traditional Pakistani single-plot model. For its series on child sexual abuse, they took inspiration from Shakespeare, creating a humorous sub-plot that helped to give the audience a chance to breathe before diving back into the heaviness of the main plot. For its third production touching on themes like HIV, drug addiction and forced prostitution, Kashf tested out the docu-drama style, focusing on the stories of seven girls told via flashbacks. This heavy, slow-moving style was not as popular with their audience, however, so the foundation decided to return to fiction for its current production, a tri-plot story on domestic human trafficking.
Measure your impact at the individual and national level
Not only are Kashf’s dramas popular, they are also beginning to change perceptions on taboo topics. Viewers of Udaari, a 2016 series on child sexual abuse, said that talking about this abuse was easier after the series aired. One viewer of Udaari commented that “for the first time, I feel like my story is told, and I’m not alone.” Another study found that the majority of Udaari viewers became concerned about the welfare of children in their family, and began thinking about taking preventative measures.
The story also helped to debunk common myths on the topic. Researchers found marked changes in perceptions among viewers – notably that the victims of abuse shouldn’t be blamed for what happened, and that it is the abuser who should be held accountable for their crime. The inclusion of strong female characters in the dramas is also helping to change perceptions about whether women should be allowed to work outside the home. Udaari managed to convince 47% of its viewers that women should be allowed to work outside the home.
Beyond the individual impact on viewers, Udaari also inspired policy makers and opinion leaders to discuss the topic more openly in the media. More importantly, the show has inspired similar dramas on other networks, a sign that Kashf Foundation is seeding the mainstream market for content that sparks change in viewers’ perceptions and tears down destructive social norms.
Funders committed to large scale social change, take note
Jeff Skoll’s TED Talk, “My Journey into Movies that Matter” presents a powerful case for investing in entertainment that inspires change. Since 2004, his media company, Participant, has produced over 100 feature and documentary films that both raise awareness and inspire action on a range of topics including social justice, human rights and the environment, to name a few. Popular films like “The Help,” for example, have raised awareness of the mistreatment of domestic workers of color in the U.S., and have inspired legislative action to protect domestic workers in several states.
But though the impact of this sort of work is clear, the business model is still a challenge. Producing a television series in Pakistan costs between US $350,000-500,000, or about US $10,000-12,000 per episode. To date, Kashf doesn’t earn revenue from the productions – particularly since networks are reluctant to pay for socially driven content because they don’t believe it will earn any revenue. And the donor funds Kashf used for previous productions, sadly, have dried up. One challenge, Zafar mentions, is that many donors are too risk averse, and prefer to keep their names out of the media.
However, there is potential for more innovative partnerships, as the interest in social change-focused media grows. For instance, Jeff Skoll’s media company, Participant, is an inspiring example of beautiful and impactful storytelling. Kashf and its local creative teams are already making high-quality content that moves the needle on social norms. Imagine if Kashf had a partner like Participant to continue funding this transformative work.
Making social impact film and television is not a money-making venture. The rewards, however, can mean the creation of a new social fabric upon which business, government, education and family life are rewoven to give a voice to the unheard, power to the powerless and prosperity to all.
Photo: A promotional image from the television drama Udaari, courtesy of Kashf Foundation.