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How "True Women" Brought Truth to the Surface

A teenager wondered if she wanted to have sex with her boyfriend, a mother of two resisted her husband's wish to terminate her current pregnancy, and the sexual escapades of a group of co-workers were chronicled. When the Romanian Family Health Initiative (RFHI) aired "True Women" —a mini-series that expertly wove reproductive health messages into a dramatic plot— on Romanian national television, curiosity, discussion, and often heated debate arose amongst viewers.

Shown over the course of a few months in 2006 on television and in behavior change and communication (BCC) programs for reproductive health, "True Women" was a well-timed catalyst. In a culture where talking about issues like menopause, puberty, contraceptives, and sexual debut was still taboo, the show prompted viewers to discuss the 'unmentionable.' Even the actors themselves got caught up in the show's topics. When some of the actors talked about being part of the "True Women" project over dinner at a crowded restaurant in Bucharest, the schism between men and women on the topic of reproductive health, common in Romania and a theme of the show, was recreated. The director admitted that he didn't understand why the experience of an abortion was so traumatic, while Emanuela, one of the female actors, expressed great sadness for the many women in Romania who have suffered numerous —sometimes more than 20— abortions. She was happy to be part of a show with a plot line in which a woman resisted her husband's pressures to have an abortion. At the same time, Emanuela's character, a co-worker of the pregnant woman, flaunted her knowledge of contraceptive topics, such as condom use and emergency contraception, to her less-informed colleagues. Emanuela had once consoled a friend who'd had an abortion because she didn't know about emergency contraception. She hoped that her character in the show projected some of that personal experience.

Irina and her newborn son.Meanwhile in Oradea, a city in the western part of Romania, a mother, 17-years-old, calmly rocked her newborn, who was wrapped in pastel sweaters, blankets, and towels to protect him from the unusual chill of an April morning. Irina (a pseudonym), was no longer welcome in her family's home when she found out that she was pregnant, so she moved into a center for young mothers in similar situations. It was there, with her housemates, that Irina watched the "True Women" series, which was followed by a discussion that was mediated by the home's counselors. Irina identified most with the show's character who was being pressured to have an abortion, as Irina was by her parents. She admired the character's strength and persistence in refusing to terminate the pregnancy, despite the insistence of loved ones. Also important for Irina was the topic of mothers speaking openly with their daughters about sex (in the show, a mother sits with her daughter after the daughter's first menstrual period to talk about menstruation and sexual life). Although Irina seemed at ease with her new and profound responsibility, she admitted that it was hard to balance finishing high school and motherhood. "It's important for mothers to talk to their daughters about sex so they can help them avoid being in my situation," she said.

Many other women and men were touched by "True Women", which reached half-a-million viewers in their homes, and almost 200,000 more through viewings in BCC sessions. A local government representative from the public health authority in Oradea, Irina's home, said that after airing the series, "the number of clients in family planning clinics tripled."

The "True Women" mini-series was co-produced by RFHI partner Population Services International. The series was an inspiration combination of government and private agencies, and education and entertainment sectors working together in the people's best interest. In addition to RFHI's hugely successful programs to increase the use of contraceptives and decrease the use of abortion in Romania, women all over the country began to discuss these deeply personal and life-changing topics.

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