The following article appeared in Women Transforming Communication, edited by Donna Allen, Ramona R. Rush and Susan J. Kaufman, as well as in Participatory Communication for Social Change, edited by Jan Servaies, Rhomas L. Jacobson and Shirley A. White. Both volumes were published in 1996 by Sage.

Powerful Grassroots Women Communicators:
Participatory Video in Bangladesh

By Renuka Bery and Sara Stuart

Prologue

When Bulu, a village woman, was young, she was deserted by her husband who had tried to sell her "like a cow." Now, she is an organizer with years of experience and a steadfast commitment to legal aid for grass roots women. She works at Banchte Shekha, a women's organization in western Bangladesh.

Bulu's involvement in participatory video began in 1992 when she joined a workshop with 14 other Banchte Shekha group members and field workers. She wanted to make a tape that would tell Nasima's story -- a story of domestic violence. Although it would have been easier to interview Nasima at Banchte Shekha's office to avoid crowd control problems, Bulu said, "No." She hoped that by taping in the village, word would reach Nasima's husband and that this would make him worry.

Bulu made this tape simply -- editing in the camera. She completed the recording in less than three hours and played it back immediately to Nasima and the members of her somiti [women's group]. They were excited and inspired by seeing themselves and the story of their sister on a television screen. They gave feedback and permission to show it elsewhere.

Bulu's strategy for using the tape was clear: she planned to show it to Nasima's husband's neighbors to keep Nasima's experience and perspective alive in their minds, as well as to put pressure on them not to give false testimony in the village court where Nasima's case would be heard. In most domestic cases, the court in the husband's village has jurisdiction. As women generally marry outside their own villages, they have very little influence in that court, while their husbands' families may have a great deal. The tape about Nasima gave her a stronger voice in a situation where she would otherwise have had very little power. In addition, the tape is used to raise awareness among Banchte Shekha members and workers about violence against women and women's human rights.

Since 1992, Bulu has used video extensively in Banchte Shekha's legal aid activities. She taped a village court case about a man who had disavowed paternity and refused to give financial compensation. In the village court he reversed his position and promised child support rather than face a suit in the local government court. In another case of desertion, the mere mention that Banchte Shekha planned to make a tape about a particular woman's experience motivated her husband and his family to negotiate a settlement. They didn't want to be embarrassed in front of their neighbors.

In Bulu's hands, a camcorder is a powerful tool to advocate for women's human rights. Her access to and skills with this tool has given her elevated status in the community, just as, being associated with an organization that owns these tools has given all Banchte Shekha members increased status in their communities. Her tapes illustrate to grass roots men and women how their sisters, who have been abandoned or abused, have gained justice through village-level mediation or through the formal courts.

Bulu's experience demonstrates the potential and power of grass roots women communicators. She and her sisters in Bangladesh have mastered not only the technical skills, they have integrated participatory communication methods and strategies into their own organizations.

Introduction

Participatory video is a methodology developed over 25 years of experience. Communication for Change (formerly Martha Stuart Communications) began its work keenly aware of the disadvantages inherent in centralized control of media making and media dissemination. In exploring less brokered forms of communication, we produced programs with real people speaking from their own experience on issues of general concern. This approach challenged the norm, where experts or journalists reported on an issue. We also questioned the concept that communication is a product. We consider it a process -- a means not an end. Our work has evolved through experimentation, into what we call participatory communication.

At Communication for Change, we define participatory communication as a process which allows people to speak for themselves. Though the modes of communication vary, in participatory communication the people who control the tools are community members -- not outsiders who mediate information and representation. Participatory communication is an exchange among individuals that values each person's perspective and voice. Such communicators can mobilize constituencies and give a stronger collective voice for change at many levels of society.

Communication for Change forms collaborative relationships with people's organizations that are working successfully at the grass roots level on issues of importance to their members or constituents. Together we introduce communication tools and methods to their workers, members and community organizers. This, we believe, establishes a model for communication which strengthens local communities through their organizations and inspires social and economic change.

The objectives and strategies of participatory communication share a great deal with the methods for achieving change that have been developed through the global women's movement. The inclusive stance of the women's movement which values each woman's perspective and experience, and which seeks out and embraces diversity, is consonant with participatory communication. Participatory communication methods enhance the bottom-up strategies used by women's organizations around the world, and aid their efforts to leverage their experience to influence the mainstream.

It is a mistake to ask, "What is the women's agenda?" We cannot expect a single agenda for half the world's population. There will never be a unified women's front or an equivalent of the World Bank representing women's interests around the world. Diversity must enrich and strengthen the women's movement, or we will have no movement at all.

Given this fluidity and preference for autonomy, women are becoming, by necessity, skilled networkers and coalition builders--active in many alliances. For these strategies to succeed the movement requires a multitude of participatory communicators.

Participatory Communication

Participatory communication focuses on who is communicating. Why? Because, who creates the message shapes its content, perspective, and impact.

Participatory media are a subset of direct media which are distinct from mass media. We consider mass media as "big" in terms of budget and numbers of people who can receive the messages (e.g. broadcasts aimed at an audience of millions and mass market video cassettes). Direct media are smaller on all these scales; here the elements of choosing to participate or self-determination are strong, and these forms of communication often enable feedback or exchange. Participatory communication is two-way. It involves dialogue, collaboration and group decision making. This classification system is not perfect; as the technology changes rapidly, there are more and more hybrids and we must adapt definitions.

To grasp the characteristics and impact of participatory media, it is best to start without preconceived ideas. Assumptions based on the expectations created by mass media are often incorrect. For example, a participatory video tape can be considered successful and even cost-effective by reaching and motivating a handful of viewers. This small audience would be considered a resounding failure in the mass media.

Participatory media have a function in the larger process of organizing, training or advocacy. The goal of such communication might be mobilizing, or awareness raising, or confidence building -- not a finished program. We find that the value and impact of a tape is rarely determined by technical quality. Grass roots organizers with little formal education are often the most effective producers.

With participatory media, people first learn to operate the equipment. They participate in planning and making productions about their own concerns. Seeing their situations framed on a video screen, their perspective on these issues changes. Afterwards they show their programs to their peers and members of their communities. Such activities are profound experiences for the small media maker. They have the potential for great impact, before one considers the value of the recorded program to its viewers.

The mass media maker's job is finished once he or she files the story or delivers the final edited tape. But the participatory video maker's work is just beginning. He or she will be involved in facilitating playbacks of the tape, in building on the insight, motivation and understanding the tape creates, and in continuing to work toward the goals that the tape is serving. Participatory media are practically-oriented and build on the strengths of local organizers. They can succeed even when time and resources are constrained.

Bangladeshi Non-Governmental Organizations

Bangladesh has a large, vital, and mature community of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) which have played a critical role during the years of authoritarian rule and in the transition to democracy. They address many areas of social concern which includes coordinating relief efforts for the natural disasters which routinely occur and speaking strongly against religious fundamentalist forces that try to infiltrate government structures at all levels.

Since 1989, Communication for Change has introduced participatory video to several Bangladeshi NGOs. This chapter documents and analyzes the experience of Banchte Shekha and Proshika, two such organizations.

Proshika, the third largest NGO in Bangladesh, has more than half a million members in villages and urban slums throughout the country. The basic organizing unit is a group of up to 20 men or women members. Women comprise a slight majority of Proshika's membership. Human development is the core of Proshika's work. They begin by raising consciousness, analyzing the causes of poverty, initiating collective saving and developing income generating activities. Over a period of years, group members have achieved sustainable improvements in income, health, education, social issues, environment, and other areas. They also participate actively in local and district levels of decision making and planning.

Proshika's work is broad and therefore, difficult to summarize in brief. As the groups form alliances, their collective strength grows. They have opposed powerful interests and exposed inequity and corruption in their communities and on the part of local authorities. They have learned the value of collective strength in the face of conflict. In their work on the environment, the organization has pioneered sustainable agricultural practices and opposed the importation of pesticides that are banned in developed countries. In some cases, by gaining access and rights to public resources, such as water, the poor have increased their income while protecting their environment.

Banchte Shekha is a women's organization with more than 20,000 members in several districts of western Bangladesh. Banchte Shekha began by working with poor, rural women who were struggling to survive on their own. They had experienced violence, desertion, dowry abuse and often their families were unable or unwilling to support them. Banchte Shekha's numerous program activities reflect their commitment to giving poor women, through awareness raising and skills building, the right to live with dignity.

As with Proshika, Banchte Shekha's central organizing unit is a group of 20-25 members. Their programs in savings, credit, training and income generation assist the members in attaining economic solvency. Their literacy, health, and legal advocacy programs assist the women in recognizing and demanding their legal and human rights. Banchte Shekha's legal aid program has become a formidable force in the area. Their reputation in the communities is that the cases supported by Banchte Shekha never lose in government courts.

Planning

Planning is crucial when developing participatory approaches. Considerable attention and time was given to forming collaborative relationships with Proshika and Banchte Shekha. Participatory video challenged existing assumptions and structures.

Banchte Shekha had almost no previous experience with any communication technology. Like rural women in many parts of the world, Bangladeshi village women have very limited access to information and most have little formal education. The mass media in their country do not represent their experience or issues. Therefore, the opportunity to share relevant experiences of peers inside and outside the organization was compelling.

I1991 Banchte Shekha sent two young women to a 20-day participatory video workshop for workers from smaller NGOs. They returned to make their productions with Banchte Shekha members. As a result, many people in the organization gained exposure and first-hand experience with participatory video. Despite this exposure, some found it difficult to separate their thinking about participatory video from promotional video. They saw video as a tool to promote the organization's public image.

In Proshika it was different. Although not everyone understood it, some field workers and members immediately recognized the potential of this tool and methodology for strengthening their work. During an exploratory visit to Bangladesh, C4C spent a day with 12 village women. With Proshika's video team, we introduced the basics of video equipment and discussed some experiences of grass roots producers.

This first exposure generated a great deal of excitement, ideas, and energy. The women had no fear of the equipment and eagerly gave it a try. We screened these recordings with several Proshika workers who were at the center that day. The men were impressed. They had not thought village women could use sophisticated technology.

After the screening, the village women talked about their ideas for using video; their thoughts were insightful. They proposed making tapes to expose exploitation in their communities. One woman wanted to interview leaders making promises. By showing the tape to the communities, she felt they could put enough pressure on the leaders to fulfill the promises they so often break. These women also felt that video could be a very good channel for sharing experiences between communities and for elevating women's status in society.

Their visions convinced all who were present of the value and potential these tools offer. It is one thing to be fascinated and enthused by a new technology; it is quite another -- after your first exposure -- to have formulated a strategy to apply this technology with potentially far-reaching impact.

Implementation

Both Proshika and Banchte Shekha committed themselves to train grass roots members and field workers. By learning to shoot in-sequence, they avoided the time and expense of editing. The simple methods allowed those directly involved, a voice in managing participatory video.

Proshika chose to establish independent rural production units based in seven of their 60 Area Development Centers (ADCs). Each ADC-based team was equipped with a VHS camcorder, a battery monitor, a set of playback equipment, a generator, and accessories. Banchte Shekha established a single video team at their office. They have one complete set of equipment and use Hi8mm as their recording format rather than VHS.

In both organizations, grass roots members and full-time field workers received training and access to the equipment. Few of the participants had prior experience with video or any other electronic technology; they all learned by doing. Some participants were skeptical; others were frightened of electronic technology, but all were very curious to try these new tools. A pioneering spirit grew in the groups; we felt we were doing something new in Bangladesh.

The grass roots participants were eager for the workshop to address their issues and social change concerns. Muriam, an organizer who distributes loans, wanted to learn video and train her somiti sisters with it. Aklima is the first of nine wives. Deserted by her husband, she struggled to support herself and her three children. She wanted to make tapes about women's legal rights. Tuli, a group leader, had some experience with popular theater and saw video as another method for increasing the status of women. Their ideas and others ensured that participatory video grew into a relevant and locally valuable process.

During the three-week workshops, the trainees were introduced to participatory video strategies. Each participant learned to operate the equipment: to make simple programs edited in the camera, to conduct playbacks and to lead discussions about the tapes and the issues in their communities. The trainees returned to their villages to make a video program on an issue directly related to his or her own work. They also led community screenings of these productions. Through these activities they gained a powerful, new kind of literacy.

The training was intensive. The women participants grew bolder as their self-confidence grew; they deferred less to the men and relied on their own judgment. They were better able to assert their ideas. They often admonished the men for being clannish or insensitive. This change was more evident after six months of practice. The technical quality of their programs had improved but, more importantly, their ability to conceptualize issues and use video to communicate these issues had developed as well.

Often training is conducted far from the environment where the new skill is to be applied. Thus, when the trainees return home, they face the difficult task of introducing something new, convincing their peers of its merit. The experience of bringing these new skills to their communities during the training was important. There is no substitute for showing your program to your peers. It is at once humbling, empowering, and intensely motivating. Muriam organized all the women in her somiti to help with her production on nutrition. The villagers were impressed and suggested other programs she could make. In Hassina's village the men were extremely critical because they were jealous of the women who were learning new skills that they, themselves, wanted. The participatory video trainees completed their training as confident and experienced teams of producers and communicators whose work was, at least partially, understood by their communities.

Decentralization, Participation, and Empowerment

Proshika's participatory video program is ground-breaking. We know of no other rural development communication initiative that compares in its scope and its level of decentralized grass roots participation. While occasional follow-up training and technical support is available from Proshika's communication unit in Dhaka, the participatory video teams' work is locally focused and integrated into the overall work of the ADCs.

Video team members in Proshika and Banchte Shekha consult with their peers about important issues in the communities. They discuss how a video tape could assist them in pushing for change and solving problems. In some cases, workers and members from outside the video team initiate ideas for tapes. This type of collaboration increases the scope of the video program.

For example, a participatory video team documented the destruction of the social forestry income-generating projects of many Proshika members. Tree plantations along the roadside were cut down to widen the road. The members had used many tactics to either stop the road or get compensation, but to no avail. Then they taped the destruction and interviewed people who had lost their livelihood. This video was used successfully to gain just compensation from the local government for the lost trees. The experience won many supporters among the local population and Proshika staff members. They are convinced that grass roots members with access to video have greater power to solve local problems.

Members and workers report that video is a valuable tool because it can make people conscious; when people can visualize, they understand. They say, "Video cannot be bribed, and it tells honestly our stories."

Video is also a valuable tool for documenting injustice and harassment. As Bulu's experiences illustrate, this application of participatory video is useful in efforts to gain equitable settlements and to protect the rights of women. The potential to be exposed or embarrassed by video in front of one's peers is enough to motivate changes in behavior, gain financial redress, and prevent further acts of violence. Thus, video becomes a powerful deterrent. Peer pressure is an effective force for change and video can help to release this force.

During a cholera outbreak, one video team produced a health tape about the causes of diarrhea. The video devoted attention to insects as a vector for spreading bacteria, and showed flies on the food available from street vendors and restaurants. Community screenings of this tape educated the population about the causes and remedies for diarrhea, but they also influenced the owners of restaurants and sweet shops to improve sanitary conditions because their clientele refused to purchase food from unsanitary vendors.

Playbacks in the centers, during trainings and in villages can unleash the drive and commitment to work for meaningful change. One worker explained, "We get instant consciousness with video playbacks. It works very rapidly. People come thinking it will be a movie but when they see that the tape is about their lives, they ask to see the tape again and again. They raise lots of questions and get more conscious."

Village playbacks and the discussions which follow offer rich opportunities for organizing and mobilizing. For example, Shameema and Lailee led a discussion with the villagers after viewing a tape about bamboo handicrafts. The women were amazed to see their sisters in another village working in an occupation traditionally reserved for men. They were excited by this tape and talked about getting a loan from their somiti (group) to start a bamboo handicrafts trade. Suddenly they realized they could expand their ideas to include any occupation. Their range of options increased dramatically through this experience.

In addition to introducing new ideas and stimulating consciousness in a group, grass roots video tapes make a strong impression. They are so easy to understand and so relevant that viewers absorb a great deal. One playback in a village attracted more than 200 people to watch the tapes. Everyone came -- from small children to village elders. After watching three tapes the video team led discussions with different groups from the audience. One worker spoke with a 12-year-old boy who, having seen "The Life Struggle of Aleya," recited the entire story of Aleya's life. He made connections about how the practice of giving dowry is harmful to all levels of society and said he would not ask for a dowry when he gets married. In another conversation some of the men teased another about his marrying a 12-year-old girl. People in this village were more conscious about issues portrayed on the tape after the playback session.

Participation takes place at many levels: in planning strategies, in making productions, in showing them, in leading discussions, in managing the video work. While many organizations are reluctant to decentralize responsibility for communication resources, Banchte Shekha and Proshika are doing it.

Banchte Shekha's video team has instituted a policy aimed at increasing the participation and leadership capacity of the grass roots members. There is a rotating "Presidency" for participatory video. The president ensures that the participatory video activities are implemented. She mediates problems within the group, and refers them to the participatory video supervisor if necessary. The president keeps the records and documents the activities with the help of someone more educated. She assigns tasks and responsibilities among the team during her term. This process has stimulated some positive competition. Everyone wants her reports to be the best.

Proshika has also made strides in solving institutional and management issues arising from the ADC participatory video work. New policies have been adopted that give greater status and accountability to these activities. They have defined participatory video in such a way that it relates to the organization's core mission. They agreed on the following ten goals for participatory video:

  • to awaken people's human and ethical values.
  • to ensure the participation of poor villagers and to value their thoughts and beliefs.
  • to disprove the popular belief that poor villagers cannot use sophisticated technology and to create skill among these target people.
  • to project the viewpoints of the villagers about social issues and to insure their participation.
  • to point out the reasons why the poor are deprived and robbed of power.
  • to ensure that participatory video remains true to life rather than being created as entertainment.
  • to uphold the views of people who are alienated by the mass media.
  • to show that grass roots people are capable of expressing their feelings and their problems.
  • to raise people's consciousness by exchanging video programs among people of various regions.
  • to show the processes from which people conquer poverty and to show the causes of poverty.

Proshika has redefined participatory video as its own. This ownership extends from the tools, methods, and management all the way to the ideology and ethic. Other organizations accomplish a great deal without finding it necessary to digest and institutionalize participatory communication to such an extent. Still, these ten goals indicate the degree to which Proshika has successfully integrated participatory video.

The themes of decentralization, participation, and empowerment are interdependent. True participation can lead to empowerment, but without significant decentralization and scope for self-determination, the grass roots people we seek to empower will not be able to participate.

Participatory Communication and Leadership

While there are people who are natural or gifted communicators, most of us develop our communication skills through education and practice. Generally, when we describe the benefits of participatory video, we focus on empowerment, training, self-representation, and advocacy outcomes. Participatory video training provides a forum to learn and use new communication skills. These are all ingredients of leadership.

When people learn to make a meaningful and compelling video program, to master a new and sophisticated tool, or to facilitate a group discussion after viewing a relevant video program, they develop communication skills that increase their visibility in the community. Even after putting down the camera, cassettes and VCR, participatory video producers remain experienced communicators. Exercising these communication skills to effect change requires vision and strategy. We see among our partners a growing and strong strategic sensibility -- another key element of leadership. As the people we train become more skillful communicators and thus, more capable leaders, they will take more responsibility for the goals of their organizations. Strategic thinkers and communicators are important and valuable assets, not only to their organizations, but to their communities and nations as well. They are the ones who will ask challenging questions and inspire others to make changes to improve their lives.

Reaching Beyond the Local Level

Once local level participation and empowerment have taken root and are succeeding, it is possible to add a second objective for participatory communication: to serve as a channel to communicate beyond the local area. Tapes can flow horizontally from one village to another. This mode of distribution could, if carefully managed, challenge the prevailing top-down flow of media and information in society.

One video tape exchange created healthy competition and increased motivation among Proshika workers for prompt delivery of services. The participatory video team in one ADC documented the ceremony honoring the installation of the 45th sanitary, deep-tube well in the area. When this tape was shown to a number of Proshika field managers, they were impressed. They felt that if their peers had distributed 45, then they could certainly do as well or better.

Tapes from Banchte Shekha and Proshika have been screened locally, nationally, and internationally. Such recognition and distribution can have both positive and negative outcomes, as Shahnaz Begum's experience illustrates. She is a village woman who was trained in participatory video at Proshika. In 1993 Shahnaz was among eight winners of the British Council's Women In Development video competition. Her production, "The Life Struggle of Aleya," is a powerful tape. It was one of 78 entries from 23 countries. This award illustrated the strengths of participatory video and gave the communities in South Asia, Bangladesh, and especially Proshika, a concrete reason to acknowledge it as a viable and important communication model.

Shahnaz made the tape about her neighbor, Aleya. Despite being poor, uneducated and abandoned by her husband, Aleya struggled hard and successfully to educate her daughter. Shahnaz felt that her own possibilities in life were greatly limited by her lack of schooling. She wanted the tape to be a positive example to encourage other parents to educate their daughters, even in hard times.

Shahnaz went to Delhi to a screening of all the winning tapes. It was her first time out of Bangladesh and her neighbors warned her to take care not to get kidnapped and sold. "I was scared at first but then I felt strong. I was afraid I would not be able to walk with the people I met in Delhi because they would be more educated and well dressed. But going to Delhi was one of the greatest experiences in my life!"

Not being able to talk directly with anyone else was the most difficult problem she faced. Shahnaz has lots of new ideas about how video can be used as an organizing and mobilizing tool. In Delhi she saw a tape about people who came together to fight the police. "In this tape the people were so united the police couldn't do anything. Unity is so important." While sharing her experiences with the other Proshika video teams she said, "All the other tapes in this competition used lots of make-up and acting. My tape was about the real life in Bangladesh."

Although the award brought greater legitimacy to participatory video at Proshika, it has taken attention away from participatory video as a movement by highlighting one tape, one style, and one person. It created problems in Shahnaz's community where Aleya and others accused Shahnaz and Proshika of reaping benefits from Aleya's personal story. Proshika has had to work hard to reemphasize the value of the methods and process of participatory video, and not just the accomplishments of one tape or story.

While it is important to balance the demands of advocacy and broader distribution in order to retain the benefits of participation and local empowerment, there are times when the former reinforces the latter. The Self-Employed Women's Association (SEWA), for example, has been a leader in advocating for inclusion of the self-employed in national labor policy. Their video unit, Video SEWA, supported them in motivating and educating the women of Gujarat State to stand up and have their work counted in the 1991 census. Video SEWA's 15-minute edited program, "My Work, Myself," reached an audience of approximately half a million women through community playbacks and a broadcast on Gujarat State television three days before the census was taken.

Proshika will have the capacity and the structure to undertake this sort of advocacy communication campaign. They are establishing an advocacy unit which will receive participatory video tapes on specific issues. They may use excerpts in their campaigns and lobbying initiatives. For instance, the advocacy unit might request grass roots testimony on chemical pesticides for use in lobbying, or to bring the issue to broader public attention. With finite human resources, a balance must prevail to ensure that the work retains its participatory dimension and services both the needs of the larger organization and the grass roots communities.

Conclusions

NGOs are working in many areas for increased education, human rights, gender equity, a sustainable environment, freedom, and economic self-sufficiency. To achieve fundamental change in these areas, organizations created by and for grass roots women and men have a critical leadership role to play. These NGOs are pioneers and advocates. They must create programs that address the realities of their constituents' needs. In order to succeed, these organizations--and through them their members--need to communicate for themselves. They cannot reach their goals without communication skills and tools.

Participatory communication skills can elevate women's status in their communities by strengthening women's voices. With powerful voices, women can organize, train, take collective action and ultimately build communities and a society based on self-determination. These actions form a chain. Participation leads to empowerment. Proof of empowerment comes from exercising collective strength. Effective deployment of collective strength opens the doors for self-determination. We believe that as individuals and communities become self-determining, they have the capacity to gain social and economic justice in all areas of their lives. They have the strength and experience to demand that their governments and other authorities be responsive and responsible in their policies and decision making. Our experiences in Bangladesh point to some effective and powerful methods.


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