How Soap Operas and cable TV promote women’s rights and family planning

October 21, 2014

     By Duncan Green     

Taking a break from the How Change Happens book this week to head off to Harvard for a Matt Andrews/ODI seminar on ‘Doing Development Differently’ + a day at India soap operasOxfam America on Friday. Will report back, I’m sure. Meanwhile, I’ve just finished the draft chapter on the power of social norms, and how they change (and can be changed). ODI provides an absolute gold mine of a crib sheet on this in the shape of Drivers of Change in Gender norms: An annotated bibliography, by Rachel Marcus and Ella Page with Rebecca Calder and Catriona Foley.

Here’s one of the excerpts that caught my eye:

Jensen, R. and Oster, E. (2007) ‘The Power of TV: Cable Television and Women’s Status in India’. Working Paper 13305. Cambridge, MA: NBER

“This paper explores the effect of the introduction of cable television on gender attitudes in rural India. Using a three-year individual-level panel dataset, Jensen and Oster find the introduction of cable television is associated with significant increases in women’s reported autonomy (e.g. the ability to go out without permission and to participate in household decision making), decreases in the reported acceptability of domestic violence and decreases in reported son preference.

They also find increases in female school enrolment and decreased dropout4 and decreases in fertility (primarily via increased birth spacing). The effects are large, equivalent in some cases to about five years of education, and move gender attitudes of individuals in rural areas much closer to those in urban areas (between 45% and 70% of the difference between rural and urban areas disappeared within two years of cable introduction). Consistent with other work on the effects of media exposure, Jensen and Oster found these changes in attitudes took place very quickly: the average village has cable for only six or seven months before being surveyed again.

There were also increases in male school enrollment and decreases in dropout, but these were smaller.

Jensen and Oster further found the effects of cable were largest in areas with initially more unequal attitudes towards women – that is, those for whom cable is providing information most different from their current way of life.

Although certainly not conclusive, this evidence is consistent with a model in which television changes the weight individuals put on the behaviour of their immediate peer group in forming their attitudes. These changes may reflect the significant differences in gender relations depicted on popular Indian soap operas compared with those typical for rural areas.

Anthropological studies, such as Scrase (2002) and Johnson (2001), found both men and women attributed changing gender relations to the coming of television: they cite Johnson (2001) ‘Since TV has come to our village, women are doing less work than before. They only want to watch TV. So we [men] have to do more work. Many times I help my wife clean the house.”

And they back it up with the better known (at least to me) study from Brazil: La Ferrera, E., Chong, A. and Duryea, S. (2008) ‘Soap Operas and Fertility: Evidence from Brazil’, which finds that the impact of the arrival of TV Globo on women’s fertility is ‘is comparable with that associated with an increase of two years in women’s education.’

So next time someone moans to you about the evils of television……..