The Family Planning Soap Opera

Daily series dramas on radio and television can increase the popularity of family planning in Third World countries. But education and job opportunities for women are essential to the process

By Joan Montgomerie

The Population Media Centre in Vermont is dedicated to using entertainment media to encourage fertility planning and reproductive health care. Their chairman, William Ryerson, has written several papers describing such programs. Some of them have been in existence for 25 years in Mexico and more recently in India, Kenya and Tanzania, with apparently remarkable success. The radio and television stations disseminate information about reproductive health issues through their own well-crafted soap operas. Often people who are not used to discussing this topic can feel comfortable addressing it when it is presented in the form of story.

Narratives and Minds

The novelist Doris Lessing has said that our minds are constructed by narrative. It is the means by which we understand reality and relate to it. Our actions are largely constituted by the stories we tell ourselves. Of course, we want to tell ourselves stories that include all that we notice about our world, not just selected parts of it. Perhaps the creators of demographics soap operas are onto something. With characters with whom they can identify, situations that seem familiar to them, and a good plot, people in the developing world are letting themselves be influenced to seek information at nearby clinics and begin to use family planning or postpone marriage and child-bearing until a later age. The success statistics are impressive in all countries where it has been used thus far.

One can't argue with success. The fertility rate has dropped in those areas where the family planning soap operas have been shown. Miguel Sabido in a Broadcasting Corporation in Mexico developed the methodology in 1977. He produced a nine-month series dealing with family harmony, including the benefits of planning fertility. He went on to produce many more and in the decade after they began there was a 34% decline in population growth in Mexico, winning the country a UN award. (There was also extensive urbanization, which may have been a factor.) This methodology was then transferred to India, with local content, and then to Kenya and Tanzania. Always there were areas of population not exposed to the broadcasts so that comparisons could be done concerning their influence. Always they were highly popular and were followed by an increase in family planning.

Feminists presented their own views at the 1992 Cairo Conference. Some said that family planning is not really necessary and would only be imposed upon women by men. What women want is the education and job opportunities and freedom to decide their own future - then, if planning is added, it won't be something patriarchal, to be decided by husbands and bureaucrats but will be a resource that women should have as an option, with access to information and services. This view, of raising women's educational and employment level, along with making planning available, was upheld by the conference. These soap operas answer the latter need, for information and encouragement to think freely; the resources, such as clinics have to be provided concurrently. And these factors alone are not the whole answer, for the education and job opportunities cannot be bypassed. Certainly, entertainment television does not replace a formal education. Their effects are complementary. In Third World countries, increasing numbers of people are migrating to cities and acquiring TV sets. (Some programs, of course, are heard on the radio, which is easier to obtain, especially in remote villages.) Such people presumably are already on the way to declining levels of fertility. These programs must be an excellent adjunct for them.

In the countryside, many girls are unable to attend schools. Surely they need schools with books more than they need soap opera. We would not want to see resources taken from basic education, or job creation in order to provide entertainment television. Such programming is simply propaganda if the woman watching it lacks the independence that comes from reading for herself and being able to provide for her own living so that she can freely decide when to marry and how many children to bear. However, you can't argue with success. The birth rate has declined in areas where the programs have been shown. You can read the research reports for yourself on the website www.populationmedia.org.

Prosperity and Birth rates

The "demographic transition model" has generally explained the stabilizing of both fertility and mortality rates over a four stage process. To reach the fourth stage, prosperity is essential, for children's death rates invariably begin to decline before birth rates decline, and the survival of children is chiefly a matter of their family's prosperity. In the Worldwatch Environmental Alert publication Beyond Malthus, a wish is expressed that the 600-odd billionaires in the world today should commit their fortunes now to this crisis. If they wait 20 years to bequeath them, the declines in infant mortality rates may come too late to reduce birth rates to a sustainable level. The main thing that soap operas can do to contribute to reducing the world's population is to make people more aware, and sooner, that the life expectancy of children is improving, and that they can afford to give birth to fewer children, since the ones they already have are likely to survive.

Joan Montgomerie works with the United Church and is secretary of Science for Peace.

Peace Magazine Oct-Dec 2001

Peace Magazine Oct-Dec 2001, page 27. Some rights reserved.

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