In Pratapgarh, a village that could be anywhere in the Hindi belt, a young man, Ravi, gets to know that his wife, Seema, is pregnant with a girl child, third time in a row. He wants her to get an abortion because he wants a male child. He forces Seema to accompany him to a doctor who agrees to conduct the abortion though the foetus is past the 20-week deadline for a medical termination of pregnancy. Seema undergoes the abortion but is critical, having lost a lot of blood. She is rescued by her sister Sneha, an idealistic young doctor who rushes her to the hospital and threatens to call the police.
This is the plot of the fourth and fifth episode of Main Kuch Bhi Kar Sakti Hoon (I, a woman, can achieve anything’), a soap produced by Population Foundation of India (PFI), a Delhi-based population research and advocacy organisation.
What marked this soap apart was its use of education-entertainment, or ‘edutainment’, to talk about women’s reproductive health and gender rights. Through its protagonist Sneha Mathur, the series dealt with topics such as child marriage, age at first pregnancy, spacing, family planning, sex selection, quality of healthcare and domestic violence.
The serial ran for two seasons on the national channel, Doordarshan, from 2014 to 2016 and was watched by 58 million viewers in its first season, according to television audience measurement and Indian readership survey. The two seasons and their reruns together reached over 400 million people, according to Doordarshan.
The project, funded by United Kingdom’s department of international development, Gates Foundation and supported by United Nations Population Fund, managed to change attitudes, according to a 2015 PFI study.
While 73% women knew about the legal age of marriage before the show, their numbers increased to 83% after the first season, the study found. Before the serial, 57% men cited the fear of side-effects for not using modern methods of contraception. This number fell to 32% after the first season.
How popular entertainment became a tool for social messaging
Why is popular entertainment being used to deliver critical social messages on gender rights? Because it can reach and convince the target audience fast, according to activists.
Here are some discouraging trends in women’s empowerment: In 2015-16, only 53.5% women in the reproductive age-group used modern methods of contraception, a decline from 56.3% in 2005-06, according to National Family Health Survey-4 data. In 2015-16, 28.8% of married women faced spousal violence, the figure is 31.1% in rural areas.
Poonam Muttreja, executive director of the PFI and a 40-year veteran of the development sector, said she was disappointed and frustrated at how little organisations such as hers had impacted social norms and attitudes. Most information education communication initiatives had shown little impact, she said.
Then, on a visit to a Gates Foundation conference on behaviour change communication, she became aware of the impact of entertainment education, or edutainment as it is called. In South Africa, Soul City, a television series in the 1990s, talked about a range of health and development issues such as HIV/AIDS, rape, disability and alcoholism and created positive impact on people’s behaviour.
Could such an approach work in India? With this thought, Muttreja sought the expertise of Arvind Singhal, a US-based communication and social change expert.
Singhal used the concept of “positive deviance” in the show. This meant nudging communities to re-discover traditional wisdom and act on it. Singhal and Muttreja documented 60 cases of those who had defied regressive social norms but stayed rooted in their communities.
“We made sure that the serial had great aesthetics like a Hindi film because we wanted to be aspirational,” said Muttreja. The team approached theatre and film director Feroz Abbas Khan, who made films such as Gandhi, My Father, to direct the series. The script took a year and a team of 12 experts, ranging from sociologists to gynaecologists and theatre artists, contributed.
The plot stayed real but pushed for social change
The series used characters who reflected rural reality--Sneha’s brother, Purab, is an unemployed alcoholic who beats his wife and doesn’t think about contraception. Despite this, Sneha’s aunt prefers him over his sisters. Purab’s wife, Ratna, has three children, is pregnant again and has little decision-making power.
But the serial shows Purab reforming into a responsible and positive character.
“People are tired of showing evil mothers-in-law and daughters-in-law plotting against each other,” said Muttreja. “They are ready for positive content that talks about real-life issues.”
The makers used multiple tools to increase the series impact--TV, radio, social media and celebrity spots.
Each episode ended with a message and a quiz and a number on which to give a missed call. When called back, respondents could either answer the quiz or participate in a discussion. The serial received 1.4 million calls from across the country over two years. Men and women called and shared their opinions, poems and vowed to change. The calls were recorded and analysed.
‘Sneha Clubs’, where viewers discussed issues raised, were formed with the help of 10 nonprofits in Bihar and Madhya Pradesh. The show was also converted to radio, with readings from Sneha’s diaries, and broadcast on 230 All India Radio stations. It was also translated into 12 languages for regional telecast.
To reach ‘media-dark’ regions of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Madhya Pradesh--areas with little TV--a radio adaption was broadcast using six community radios.
Impact: Disapproval of early marriage for girls rose from 23% to 43%
To assess the impact of the serial after the first season, the PFI undertook an evaluation of 30,000 households in Bihar and Madhya Pradesh. These two states account for 15% of India’s population and are in need of greater awareness about family planning.
It was found that the programme reached 36% of TV-owning and 72% of radio-owning population in these two states. Of its viewership, 52% were women.
As we said earlier, the show helped boost awareness about critical gender issues. Among women with married children, awareness about the legal age of marriage was 59% before the start of the series, rising to 80% after the show was screened. Around 23% of these women felt that early marriage leads to loss of opportunity before the show; after the first season, the numbers rose to 43%.
Only 2% men felt that marriage meant loss of opportunity before the show; the numbers grew to 31% after the first season.
There was also a shift in beliefs about the age at a woman should have her first child--before the start of the show, 57% of mothers-in-law voted in favour of 21-25 years. After the first season, 86% agreed that this age bracket was ideal for motherhood.
The show also appears to have reduced the number of women who believed that a girl shouldn’t return to her parental home once she marries--from 45% at the start of the season to 28% after it ended. The series also convinced many female viewers that it was not okay for men to hit their wives on the suspicion of infidelity--66% supported the ‘punishment’ before the show, and it came down to 44% afterwards.
There are other instances of how the show’s protagonist inspired communities. In Nayagaon village in Madhya Pradesh, where no girl had ever gone to college, Ladkuwar Khushwaha, a 16-year-old girl decided to continue her studies after school. While her parents supported her, the village objected. It is alleged that those who opposed her even rammed a car against her legs. But Khushwaha persisted and today, ten girls from her village go to college.
In Chhattarpur village in Bihar, a few men formed a group and vowed to stop domestic abuse, plan their families and help their wives with housework. “Ghar mein haath bataeinge, hum khana bhi banaenge (We will help our wives in chores, we will also cook),” was their slogan.
The show expands, but funding has now run out
When the makers of the serial found that 40% of their viewers were between 15 to 24, the ministry of health and family welfare requested them to include the government’s adolescent programme, Rashtriya Kishor Swasthya Karyakram (RKSK), National Adolescent Health Programme, in the second season.
The second-season’s focus was on teen problems. It talked about Prita, Sneha’s sister, and the challenges she faced running a girl’s football team in the village.
Farhan Akhtar, Bollywood actor and director, volunteered to be a sutradhar or narrator in the second season and talked about gender equality after each episode.
“We, then made eight films around the six themes of the [RKSK] programme of nutrition, sexual and reproductive health, gender equality, mental health, preventing injuries and substance abuse,” said Muttreja.
PFI researchers created the name ‘Saathiya’, meaning friend, for peer educators who run the programme. CDs of the films were made part of the kit distributed to peer educators.
After the last episode ended in 2016, the makers found it difficult to find funders for a third season, despite the show’s popularity. There is little corporate funding available for projects that revolve around behaviour change, said Muttreja.
The makers calculated the cost of production, outreach, promotion and interactive voice response service and the reach (400 million as per Doordarshan), at Rs 1.08 per capita for both seasons or Rs 0.72 per capita per year.
(Yadavar is a principal correspondent with IndiaSpend.)
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