“”The women I highlight are making a difference with little or no help. Just imagine what they could do with international attention and support.”
― Roshini Thinakaran
Roshini Thinakaran is a Sri Lankan-American National Geographic Emerging Explorer and Ted Global Fellow who uses films to profile women in post-conflict zones.
Her family left Sri Lanka during the civil war to immigrate to the United States when she was seven years old where Thinakaran excelled in her education and eventually attended George Mason University to study communications and journalism. After graduating, she quickly began traveling and documenting women’s lives through the medium of film in the Middle East. Thinakaran spent 5 years traveling and talking to women in war zones. In 2005, she travelled to Africa where she would end up creating her breakthrough documentary film which would put her on the international stage.
Her first short film was a self-financed 3.5-minute production about Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the president of Liberia, which quickly garnered her attention from the illustrious National Geographic magazine. Thinakaran was one of only seven people to receive the scholarship in 2007, and was given $10,000 to assist with her research, which she used to produce her most recent documentary.
Much of her work focused on researching and profiling the lives of women living in post-conflict zones, including Iraq, Liberia, Lebanon and Afghanistan. She established Women at the Forefront in 2005, a multimedia project that examines war through the eyes of women. Thinkaran spent 14 months in Iraqi neighborhoods making Women at the Forefront. One video on the site opens on top of a bombed-out building in Baghdad. She and her crew are filming while mortar shells explode so nearby that they are forced to race below to escape injury.
Thinkaran also used her own money, along with independently raised additional funds, to finance the film, which focuses on Iraqi women recruited and trained by the American military to join the Iraqi security forces. The film shows the struggles that female Iraqi soldiers encountered as they tried to mainstream into a male-dominated world. The female Iraqi soldiers experienced abuse, sexual harassment, demotion, and there is evidence of one female soldier being raped.
Some other stories which Thinkaran has covered are about 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.
Today, Thinkaran still travels the world, searching for conflict zones where women’s voices must be heard. She’s drawn to cities like Beirut, Kabul and Kurdistan, where she strives to share the stories of women living and surviving.
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?”
Written by Lina Piskernik, WAVE Digital & Social Media Coordinator