Photograph by Mark Thiessen
Roshini Thinakaran travels to countries ripped by war and reeling in its aftermath. But amid destruction, she sees something else: Strong, resilient women with a passion for their people and the difficult work of rebuilding lives and countries.
"As a filmmaker, my research has taken me to Sri Lanka, Iraq, Liberia, Afghanistan, and Sudan," Thinakaran says. "Despite war, often without electricity or water, women go on with their lives. They get groceries, cook dinner, take their kids to school. But an element of danger is always with them. They're always in survival mode."
Thinakaran sees common threads not only between these women but all women. "Aspirations are universal. They all want their kids to get an education, have enough to eat, be safe, and enjoy a happy life. Just because they were born in a war zone or refugee camp, they still fall in love, care about their families, and have dreams."
Witnessing the inspiring stories of women in hostile environments led Thinakaran to create Women at the Forefront, a film project that looks at war and conflict through the eyes of women. First conceived as a film documentary, it is now evolving into a series for television and a Web site, www.womenattheforefront.com. "I've focused on a particular theme for each country, but the overall picture I reveal is a strong women's movement—born of oppression and hardship—happening all around the world. Unlike movements where women were striving for equal rights, these women strive for basic rights.
"My goal is to bring awareness of women who are making real strides and to eventually build schools in these countries, for both girls and boys. If you don't empower people with education, societies will break down."
Born in Sri Lanka but raised in the United States, Thinakaran received a B.A. in communication and a minor in journalism from George Mason University. She knows the difference the right opportunities have made in her own life. "I want this project to connect women who have more economic and educational opportunities with women who are struggling to reshape war-torn nations. It could be through fund-raising, promoting private investment, offering professional guidance, getting schools and hospitals off the ground, sending medical supplies, starting magazines—the ideas for partnerships are endless."
Research for Women at the Forefront took Thinakaran to Iraq for 14 months, where she lived not in the Green Zone but in Iraqi neighborhoods. "Bombs fell, reporters rushed to cover the destruction and then went back to their hotels," she remembers. "But the real story is what happens next, how women move on with their lives."
Telling those individual stories is at the heart of her project. "The women I highlight are making a difference with little or no help," she explains. "Just imagine what they could do with international attention and support."
In Liberia, she features the first woman assistant police commissioner; members of a grassroots movement that helped bring peace and the election of President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf; a mother of six who lost everything during the civil war; and a doctor who chose to stay in her country because "I knew I could make a difference in someone's life."
Other stories follow an Iraqi widow who provided for her family as a housekeeper, then returned to computer school and claimed a higher paying job; an Afghani woman forced to stop school and become a carpet weaver during the Taliban, now finishing her education and working as an editor of a women's magazine; a Sudanese woman who helped found a center providing medical, psychological, and legal aid to victims of torture and sexual violence; and Sri Lankan women fighting to escape lives of indentured servitude.
As she continues to document lives, Thinakaran reflects on the potential impact of her work. "In countries where women have so many rights and advantages, many are looking for a sense of purpose. Can you imagine if you took even a little bit of that energy and put it into something that helps another person?"
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What are Roshini Thinakaran and the rest of the National Geographic Explorers up to? Meet the E-Team and learn about their projects in this interactive mural.
In her Journey OnEarth series, Roshini Thinakaran documents a Louisiana town coping with the BP oil disaster of 2010.
In Their Words
In countries where women have so many rights and advantages, many are looking for a sense of purpose. Can you imagine if you took even a little bit of that energy and put it into something that helps another person?
Roshini Thinakaran has profiled the lives of women living in post-conflict zones such as Iraq, Liberia, Lebanon, and Afghanistan.
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