NATIONAL BUREAU OF ECONOMIC RESEARCH
NATIONAL BUREAU OF ECONOMIC RESEARCH

Cable Television Raises Women's Status in India

"The villages that added cable were associated with improvements in measures of women's autonomy, a reduction in the number of situations in which wife beating was deemed acceptable, and a reduction in the likelihood of wanting the next child to be a boy."

In India, access to private cable television has promoted female autonomy, decreased the reported acceptability of wife beating, and reduced reported preferences for sons over daughters, according to The Power of TV: Cable Television and Women's Status in India (NBER Working Paper No. 13305). The study's co-authors, Robert Jensen and Emily Oster, conclude that maybe "cable television, with programming that features lifestyles in both urban areas and in other countries, is an effective form of persuasion because people emulate what they perceive to be desirable behaviors and attitudes, without the need for an explicit appeal to do so." In addition to effects on attitudes, the authors also find increases in female school enrollment and decreases in fertility in response to cable television introduction.

In the early 1990s, satellite television created new businesses as Indian entrepreneurs bought satellite dishes and charged nearby homes for connection to them. Prior to this, the only television available was broadcast TV, which features limited programming. In the five years from 2001 to 2006, about 30 million households added cable service and those with cable have access to a wide variety of satellite channels. These feature, among other things, game shows and soap operas, which are extremely popular. These soap operas, in particular, generally depict urban environments in which, relative to rural areas, women are more likely to work outside the home, control money and have high levels of education.

Jensen and Oster evaluate the impact of cable television on attitudes using data from the Survey of Aging in Rural India, a rich survey of 2,700 households containing a person aged 50 or older. All women aged 15 and older in each household were interviewed in 2001, 2002, and 2003. To determine their level of autonomy, these women were asked whether they needed permission to visit the market or to visit friends or relatives. They were asked whether they were allowed to keep money to spend as they wished and who made household decisions about obtaining health care or purchasing major items. To learn about "son preference", the women were also asked whether they wanted their next child to be a boy, a girl, or whether it didn't matter. Subjects were asked whether they thought a man was justified in beating his wife for infidelity, disrespect, neglecting the children, not cooking food properly, or if her natal family did not give expected money, jewelry, or other things. Jensen and Oster also use data on behaviors per se, including school enrollment and fertility.

The survey also collected data on whether each village had cable access. In the first round of the survey in 2001, 65 of the 180 villages surveyed had cable television. Ten more households had cable in 2002, and 11 more had added it by 2003. In villages that added cable, viewership nearly doubled. Jensen and Oster identify the effects of cable on gender attitudes and behaviors by comparing changes over time in these variables across villages that do, and do not, change their cable status during the survey period.

In areas that never had cable, or always had it, there was little change in television watching over time and little recorded change in attitudes. The villages that added cable were associated with improvements in measures of women's autonomy, a reduction in the number of situations in which wife beating was deemed acceptable, and a reduction in the likelihood of wanting the next child to be a boy. And, the effects were quite large. In a sample in which the average education level was 3.5 years, introducing cable appeared to have the same effects on attitudes towards female autonomy as 5.5 years of education. Cable also increased the likelihood that a girl aged 6-10 would be enrolled in school, although it had no effect for boys, and cut the yearly increase in the number of children or pregnancies among women of childbearing age.

-- Linda Gorman


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