I came across this very interesting paper connecting cable TV access and the status of women in rural India. The results are nothing short of awesome and it makes lot of sense straightaway. Most of human behavior, it can be argued, is formed on the basis of interaction with our immediate environment. By introducing cable TV, the scope of the immediate environment widens from just ones peer group to include the as-seen-on-TV version of “acceptable behavior”. I can relate to this effect because I have seen it work at a different level during the late 90s when western TV shows gained popularity in urban India. To quote the paper:
After cable is introduced to a village, women are less likely to report that domestic violence towards women is acceptable. They also report increased autonomy (for example, the ability to go out without permission and to participate in household decision-making). Women are less likely to report son preference (the desire to give birth to a boy rather than a girl). Turning to behaviors, we find increases in school enrollment for girls (but not boys), and decreases in fertility (which is often linked to female autonomy).
In terms of magnitude, the introduction of cable television dramatically decreases the differences in attitudes and behaviors between urban and rural areas – between 45 and 70 percent of the difference disappear within two years of cable introduction in this sample. The effect is also large relative to, for example, the effect of education on these attitudes and behaviors: introducing cable television is equivalent to roughly five years of female education in the cross section. These effects happen very quickly; the average village has cable for only 6-7 months before being surveyed again, which implies a rapid change in attitudes.
But then of course, correlation does not necessarily imply causation. The doubt does exist if these changes would have happened anyway, because of factors such as “modernization”, and this is to some degree addressed in the paper by looking for modernization trends and signals; extrapolating these trends in a scenario without cable TV; and comparing those with the actual data. Apparently, cable TV pretty much causes the changes, as far as they can tell. Also, the data set, as you can see, includes variables like fertility and school enrollment that cannot be corrupted by reporting bias. Seeing that the trends in these variables pretty much match up with the rest, the chances are that reporting bias in the other variables is low.
If these findings do reflect the reality, and I have a strong inclination to think that they do, facilitating cable TV access should be a neat way of short circuiting the slow process of social change towards gender equality. What makes it really attractive is that cable TV has the potential to make for a better business model than primary education or most women empowerment movements probably ever will.
So the next time someone cribs about the K soaps on cable, remind them that somewhere in Bihar, it could be saving a girl’s life; literally.