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Malala's Inspiration

08/20/2014 04:36 pm ET | Updated Oct 20, 2014

Click here to watch the TEDTalk that inspired this post.

Behind every inspirational leader is another inspiring person. We have discovered the source of Malala's inspiration: her dad. His TED talk revealed the same personal courage and high ideals that we so admire in Malala.

Great stuff, but will it change the minds of the men and women in rural Pakistan who do not celebrate the birth of girls and who believe that a girl's place is in the home, not in a schoolroom?

Changing social norms is hard work, but changing age-old attitudes and behaviors in poor, remote areas is particularly difficult. While we are inspired by Malala and her dad, many in rural Pakistan still find the idea of empowering girls to be dangerous and repugnant.

The problem, and it is not limited to Pakistan, is that our concepts of right and wrong are instilled at an early age and are slow to change, and may not reflect modern social norms.

Half a century ago, Albert Bandura, the great Stanford psychologist, developed a social learning theory, which holds that we acquire our attitudes and behaviors by observing others, and that we are heavily influenced by those who we wish to emulate. A role model can take many forms. It can be a parent, a teacher, a sibling, a friend, or even a public figure, and it can turn out to be a positive role model...or a negative one.

What girls and boys often lack in remote, tribal societies is a positive role model, a person in this case who sees the humanity and potential in all people: men and women. We hope that Malala and her dad will serve as role models for a whole new generation of Pakistanis living in remote, tribal areas, but wishing does not make it so. If we want more girls to think like Malala and more men to think like Malala's dad, we must make positive role models more accessible. But how?

For over half a century entertainment media has been used, and with significant effect, to educate and inform, but the first significant application of Albert Bandura's social learning theory occurred in Mexico in the 1970s. Miguel Sabido, who was serving at that time as Vice President of Research at Televisa, Mexico's premier television network, met with Bandura and developed what is now known as the Sabido methodology.

Sabido developed long-running telenovelas, or soap operas as we know them, that addressed critical social issues in Mexico, such as adult illiteracy and use of family planning. Subsequent research revealed that his telenovelas had an educational and transformative impact in Mexico. His programs centered around popular 'transitional' characters, who--when confronted with having to make personal, even life-altering, decisions--are pulled back and forth by positive and negative influences, but who ultimately decide to do the right thing, whether it's attending an adult literacy class or using contraceptives to space or limit pregnancies. Sabido demonstrated that in the course of a long-running serial drama, popular characters can become positive role models, and that listeners can actually 'learn' positive social attitudes and behaviors from them.

In the 1980s, the Population Institute, worked with Sabido to spread the Sabido method to other countries. The Institute, for example, took Sabido to India and was instrumental in the development of Hum Log, India's first televised soap opera. The program provided viewers with positive role models that encouraged girls to stay in school and delay age of marriage until adulthood. The program also introduced many viewers to family planning methods. In areas where viewership was high, particularly in southern India, the program helped to stir a national debate about the value of the "girl-child," and the benefits of having smaller families.

Today, the Population Media Center, a second-generation offshoot of the Population Institute, has assumed the leading role in the use of the Sabido method, and has applied it to produce dozens of serial dramas, principally radio soap operas, to effect positive social change with respect to family planning, reproductive health, prevention of HIV/AIDs, female genital mutilation (FGM), gender violence, and the empowerment of girls and women. On the air now for over a decade in Ethiopia and reaching over 40 million people, PMC's programming is helping to transform Ethiopia, where the acceptance and use of contraceptives has quadrupled and harmful social practices such as FGM and marriage-by-abduction are now in retreat. Similar results are starting to take hold in northern Nigeria, where its programming has helped to raise public awareness about family planning and the prevention and treatment of obstetric fistula, a pregnancy-related complication that causes incontinence and can make women social outcasts.

Soap operas are popular in Pakistan, but most of them are made in India, and few, if any, are made with the idea of improving the status of girls and women in Pakistan. Popular serial dramas, if they are not designed properly, can actually reinforce old stereotypes and perpetuate irresponsible and unhealthful behaviors.

I fervently hope that Malala and her dad will become positive role models for people living in the poor, remote areas of Pakistan, but, if not, I hope they will find other positive role models, even if they are only fictional characters in a soap opera. The future of a whole new generation of Pakistanis may depend upon it.

God bless Malala, her dad, and all those who inspire us to be better.

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