Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie uses art to advocate for change through a short story titled “Olikoye,” which was part of the short story collection for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s The Art of Saving a Life campaign. Photo by: Chris Boland / CC BY-NC-ND

I will never forget the evening in 2009 when I heard Sean, a 19-year-old spoken-word artist from Brooklyn, New York, give a performance about women dying during pregnancy or childbirth in Sierra Leone; it left me in tears.

I am a fairly seasoned development professional and I have worked on the issue of maternal health for most of my career. I have written extensively about the issue, participated in hundreds of meetings and have read countless reports on the topic. But few things have gotten to me as much as listening to that young man use  his voice and artistic vision to convey how unfair, gruesome and needless it is to let a woman die giving life.

I left that night inspired, with a new appreciation and understanding of the powerful connection between art and advocacy. Yes, as advocates we need the evidence on which to build our case, but it takes more than appealing to someone’s intellect to inspire change, whether it is a change in thinking or a change in behavior.

That also requires touching people on an emotional level and one of the great ways to do this is through the arts. Art has the ability to offer new perspectives on old problems, to surprise and to help people connect to issues in new ways. This is something we are increasingly aware of at Women Deliver. Whatever the medium — film, theater, photography or the spoken word — through art we can paint vivid pictures of the conditions in which people live, the struggles they face and their efforts to find solutions.

Last week, the Family of Woman Film Festival took place in Sun Valley. The annual festival was founded by Peggy Elliot Goldwyn in 2008 to provide a platform for filmmakers who tackle issues that confront women and girls around the world — issues that are at the heart of Women Deliver’s mission.

The weeklong program featured seven films from around the world that centered on the theme of “Women and Their Dreams,” and Women Deliver’s Founder Jill Sheffield was a featured speaker. Through riveting visuals and narratives, the films transported women’s lives from all around the globe straight to Opera House in Sun Valley, and their stories moved and engaged the many hundreds who attended in a way that no book or report could.  

While film is a powerful medium with a global range, I am continually impressed by those organizations that incorporate all forms of art to support existing NGO efforts to empower girls and women and drive social change. Story Workshop is a wonderful example of an initiative working to bring social change communication together with creative entertainment to improve the lives of Malawians. Story Workshop focuses on Malawians working to improve their lives by addressing issues such as HIV and AIDS, gender, health, human rights and the environment. Stories are shared through a variety of mediums such as radio shows, village theater, print materials, public debates or music, and are based on the real lives of people to bridge the gap between what people know and what people do.

As important as it is to have artists, writers and directors willing to tackle these subjects, we need investors to fund them. It is encouraging to see that large foundations and companies are stepping up to the plate and investing in new initiatives that harness the power of the arts for social change. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s recently curated “The Art of Saving a Life,” which funded photographers, musicians, filmmakers and writers to develop art pieces to promote lifesaving vaccines. The program was launched in the lead up to a global pledging conference held in January, where donors from around the world committed a record-breaking $7.5 billion to Gavi, formerly the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization.

The philanthropic foundation within HRA Pharma supports artists and projects that explore critical issues that impact women, promotes empowerment, raises public awareness and inspires action at all levels. They have supported projects like “Les mangeuses d’âme” (“Women Soul Eaters”), which combines film and photography to showcase the impact of ostracization to women in Burkina Faso as well as online video projects like No More Shame, which breaks the silence of women who have had an abortion. No More Shame allowed 12 Irish women to speak out publicly for the first time and expanded it to a YouTube channel where women all over the world could share their personal stories and connect with other women.

“Yes, as advocates we need the evidence on which to build our case, but it takes more than appealing to someone’s intellect to inspire change, whether it is a change in thinking or a change in behavior.”

— Katja Iversen, CEO of Women Deliver

We are seeing an increased presence of artists at places like the United Nations, thanks to curators such as Lisa Russell, who was recently commissioned to bring her initiative, I Sell the Shadow, to U.N. high-level events such as the one it had on HIV and AID, the launch of the World Youth Report and more. Russell is a long-time collaborator with Women Deliver, curating the 2013 Women Deliver Conference Cinema Corner, and continues to create partnerships between artists, the United Nations and nongovernmental organizations for global social progress.

The ways in which we can share the stories of girls and women are endless. At Women Deliver, we believe in creating new stories and new narratives around our issues. We believe in touching both heads and hearts to inspire and activate change-makers. Through new forms of storytelling we can inspire action from those who may never have thought about the issues girls and women face or who believed there was nothing they could do.

Whether it’s a 19-year-old spoken-word artist from Brooklyn, a song about safe motherhood or a film about the realities of unsafe abortions, art is a unique way to connect new audiences to the issues girls and women face every day around the world. We can all play our part as advocates to create a world that is prosperous and full of educated societies and health families. As art continues to inspire, let us all add to the call that when you invest in girls and women, everybody wins.

Click here to donate and learn more about the Family of Woman Festival and Women Deliver’s partnership.

Check out others using the arts to advocate for change:

Rebecca Barry, director of “I Am a Girl”

Doc Brown, rapper and actor, “The Great Initiative”

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, author of “Olikoye”

Nargis Shirazi, Women Deliver, young leader and playwright

Women and Girls Lead

Want to learn more? Check out the Youth Will website and tweet #YouthWill.

Youth Will is an online conversation hosted by Devex in partnership with Chemonics, The Commonwealth Secretariat, The MasterCard Foundation and UN-Habitat to explore the power that youth around the globe hold to change their own futures and those of their peers.

The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the author

  • Katja Iversen

    Katja Iversen is the president/CEO of Women Deliver. She is an internationally recognized expert on development, advocacy, and communications, has more than 25 years of experience working in NGOs, corporates, and United Nation agencies. Previously, she held the position as chief of strategic communication and public advocacy with UNICEF, a position she came to after almost six years of leading the team responsible for advocacy and communication on reproductive health with UNFPA.