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Turn on the TV? How telenovelas help people cope with real life

Tackling sensitive topics through entertainment and fictional characters can make it easier to get people talking about how to deal with complicated or stigmatized problems, like domestic violence.

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Can the love triangles, kidnappings, and evil twins of prime-time TV promote positive change? It may be tough to imagine soap operas playing that role, but the format is being tapped to educate people about everything from HIV and AIDS to human trafficking, domestic violence, and conflict resolution – and it seems to be working.

To draw attention to issues like violence against women – which affects half of all women in Central America, according to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights – a Nicaraguan nongovernmental organization created the soap opera "Sexto Sentido," or "Sixth Sense." It first aired in 2001 as a weekly telenovela aimed at young people, and it focused on creating a public conversation around themes like domestic abuse, rape, intimate partner violence, discrimination, and AIDS.

"It turns out that some of these topics are hard to talk about," says Amy Bank, the former executive director for Puntos de Encuentro, the Nicaraguan NGO behind "Sextos Sentido," and executive producer of the series. The drama ran until 2005 but has been aired in 10 other countries, including El Salvador, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Bolivia, and the United States. It is now set to run again – reaching a new generation – in Nicaragua.

Youths are targeted for a reason: They can be deeply affected by violence at home – and a TV program can show people overcoming obstacles viewers may encounter in their own lives.

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