The Daily Sabbatical/Chicago Booth | Oct 8, 2009 | 24218 views

Television's Impact on the Status of Women

Turning on the television can be a simple yet influential way of improving a woman’s standing in rural India


he growth of television in the developing world over the last two decades has been extraordinary. Estimates suggest that the number of television sets in Asia has increased more than six-fold since the 1980s, increasing from 100 million to 650 million. In China, television exposure grew from 18 million people in 1977 to 1 billion by 1995. In more recent years, satellite and cable television availability has risen dramatically. Again in China, the number of people with satellite access increased from just 270,000 in 1991 to 14 million by 2005. Further, these numbers are likely to understate the change in the number of people for whom television is available, since a single television is often watched by many. India has not been left out of the cable and satellite revolution: A recent survey finds that 112 million households in India own a television, with 61 percent of those homes having cable or satellite service.

This figure represents a doubling in cable access in just five years from a previous survey.
Beyond providing entertainment, television vastly increases both the availability of information about the outside world and exposure to other ways of life. This is especially true for remote rural villages, where several ethnographic and anthropological studies have suggested that television is the primary channel through which households get information about life outside their villages. Most popular cable programming features urban settings where lifestyles differ in prominent and salient ways from those in rural areas. Anthropological accounts suggest that the growth of TV in rural areas has had large effects on a wide range of day-to-day lifestyle behaviors, including latrine building and fan usage.

Gender inequality is significantly worse in rural than in urban areas.
Gender inequality is significantly worse in rural than in urban areas.

In a recent paper, “The Power of TV: Cable Television and Women’s Status in India,” University of Chicago Department of Economics professor Emily Oster and Robert Jensen of the University of California, Los Angeles, explore the effect of the introduction of cable television in rural areas of India on a particular set of values and behaviors, namely attitudes toward and discrimination against women.

Although issues of gender equality are important throughout the world, they are particularly salient in India. In a 1992 article, Nobel Prize–winner Amartya Sen of Harvard University argued that India had 41 million “missing women”–women and girls who died prematurely due to mistreatment resulting from a dramatically male-biased population. The population bias toward men has only gotten worse in the last two decades as sex-selective abortion has become more widely used to avoid female births. More broadly, girls in India are discriminated against in nutrition, medical care, vaccination, and education. Even within India, gender inequality is significantly worse in rural than in urban areas.

Many characters on popular soap operas have more education, marry later, and have smaller families–all things rarely found in rural areas; and many female characters work outside the home, sometimes as professionals, running businesses, or in other positions of authority. By exposing rural households to urban attitudes and values, cable and satellite television may lead to improvements in status for rural women. It is this possibility that Jensen and Oster explore in their paper. In particular, they evaluate the effect of the introduction of cable and satellite television on a variety of measures of women’s status: autonomy, attitudes toward spousal abuse, son preference, and fertility. In addition, they explore the effects on education for children, which some authors have argued will increase when the status of women is higher.

Measuring the Power of Television
While television was first introduced to India in 1959, for the first three decades almost all broadcasting was in the hands of the state, and the content was primarily focused on news or information about economic development. The most significant innovation in terms of both content and viewership was the introduction of satellite television in the early 1990s. In the five years from 2001 to 2006, about 30 million households, representing approximately 150 million individuals, added cable service.

Soap operas are among the most popular shows on cable: The most popular show in both 2000 and 2007 (based on Indian Nielsen ratings) is “Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi,” (Because a Mother-in-Law was Once a Daughter-in-Law, Also), a show based around the life of a wealthy industrial family in the large city of Mumbai. By virtue of the fact that the most popular Indian serials take place in urban settings, women depicted on these shows are typically much more emancipated than rural women. Further, in many cases there is access to Western television, where these behaviors differ even more markedly from rural India. Based on anthropological reports, this seems to have affected attitudes within India. Several respondents in one study thought television might lead women to question their social position and might help the cause of female advancement. Another woman surveyed reported that, because of television, men and women are able to open up more.

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Comments (2)
Milin Kapoor Dec 8, 2011
the bottom line issue will always be the instigator of behavior adjustment, TV programming or real, old-world happenstance
Kiran Mar 21, 2011
It is good to see improvement in rural area women attitude. The TV serials, along with their profits & ratings also should consider these women orthogonal development.
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