Changing social norms through entertainment education: the case of a soap opera in India

By Poonam Muttreja, Executive Director, Population Foundation of India


A promotional activity is held for Main Kuch Bhi Kar Sakti Hoon, in Bhourikala Village, India’s state of Madhya Pradesh

“You forced me into marriage. I wanted to study.”
“What difference is that gonna make! Are you going to be the Prime Minister?”
“Yes. I will become the Prime Minister.”

This powerful exchange between key characters in a soap opera demonstrates reel life emulating real life.
In 2011, the Population Foundation of India (PFI) set out to use the soap opera Main Kuch Bhi Kar Sakti Hoon (MKBKSH) or I, A Woman, Can Achieve Anything as the centre of a transmedia initiative that leverages the power of entertainment education to change social norms. At the heart of the soap opera are the struggles and triumphs of Sneha, a doctor working in Mumbai, as she journeys from the city to her village, emotionally torn between family and society, between professional aspirations and personal commitment.

But why pursue entertainment education and what has been the experience?

India is the second most populous country in the world after China. 47% of women (aged 20-24 years) in the country are married by the age of 18.1 16% of these married women (between 15-19 years) have experienced motherhood or pregnancy. 95% of married adolescents below 18 years report not using any modern contraceptives, with the country reporting an overall 20% unmet need. The Government of India’s Ministry of Health and Family Welfare (MoHFW) estimates that if current unmet need for family planning could be fulfilled within the next five years, the country can avert 35,000 maternal deaths and 1.2 million infant deaths.

Such statistics motivated PFI’s work to inspire changes to some underlying social norms. Delaying the age at marriage, and subsequently the age at birth, helps lower population growth rates and reaps potentially broad economic and social benefits, apart from improving the health of adolescents.2

PFI already had worked on using short films to communicate behaviour changes. That experience showed how people were ready to engage in discussions around sensitive issues if they were packaged in an entertaining medium. Since 90% of the Indian population across urban and rural areas has access to television, PFI decided to make a television series that reaches out to a large audience to raise awareness on vital gender issues. It seeks to illustrate how the prevailing skewed gender norms, including social and familial roles, result in negative health outcomes for girls and women, impacting the wellbeing of their families and society’s overall progress. The series took shape as a soap opera guided by the commercial success of soap operas in India, with their storylines becoming an integral part of daily lives and their characters becoming household names.

Eminent professionals were brought in to guide PFI through this process, reflecting the belief that entertainment education has the power to improve both individual and collective efficacy. Through a positive deviance approach, good practices within the community were identified and amplified through the drama series.

With 131 episodes aired on India’s national television channel Doordarshan (DD), MKBKSH reached an estimated 115 million viewers across two seasons. Season one was telecast on 14 DD regional kendras (studio centres) and dubbed in 11 regional languages; season two is being telecast in 6 DD regional kendras. Going beyond television-based entertainment education, the series was adapted for radio and a 360-degree communications plan was built around it. According to All India Radio (AIR), the two seasons were telecast on 216 AIR FM stations to approximately 60 million listeners per week. The series saw 1.79 million digital engagements through an Interactive Voice Response System (IVRS) and sites like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Instagram. The IVRS allowed viewers to call in and participate in quizzes, leave feedback and share stories. Community media such as street plays also were used to engage viewers. Through partnerships with NGOs on the ground, MKBKSH groups of viewers and listeners were created to engage more deeply on key issues from the series. Popular stars from the Hindi film industry also lent their support.

The results are telling and promising.

Season one focused on the age at marriage, delaying first pregnancies and spacing between births. Data from the impact assessment showed that PFI got the audience right: 40% of the respondents who watched the series were in the age group of 15-24 years, and half of the married women who watched the series were in the age group of 18-24 years. The series was watched by men (48% of respondents) as much as by women (52% of respondents).

Impact assessment results revealed that the series was able to increase awareness on some key issues: A higher number of women (39% compared to the 24% baseline), men (31% compared to 2%) and mothers-in-law (43% compared to 23%) felt that early marriage led to a loss of opportunity for education. A significantly higher proportion of men, women and mothers-in-law agreed that early childbirth posed a risk to the lives of mothers and children.

A positive shift in attitudes was visible too: 86% of mothers-in-law, up from the 57% baseline, felt that the ideal age for a woman to have her first child is 21-25 years. Fewer women (17% less than the baseline) believed that once a girl is married, she can’t return to her parents’ home. Fewer men (22% less than the baseline) believed that a woman should be beaten on suspicion of unfaithfulness. Data from the IVRS showed that some of the major themes discussed by the callers included women’s empowerment (47%), gender-based violence (34%), women and child health (7%), sexual and reproductive health (7%), and substance abuse (5%).

Season two of the series focused on youth and male involvement to positively change attitudes and behaviours towards gender equality. With every fifth person in India between the ages of 10 and 19, it was time for the series to reach out to this demographic dividend. Simultaneously, the Government of India rolled out Rashtriya Kishor Swasthya Karyakram (RKSK), a peer educator-based national adolescent health programme. PFI decided to marry MKBKSH with RKSK. The last 26 episodes of MKBKSH’s season two branded and introduced the 800,000 peer educators under the government programme. The episodes stressed the need for peer educators, or Saathiya, and demonstrated the process of change that they can trigger. Films, visual diaries and games were prepared to support this work, which subsequently became part of the Saathiya toolkit to help them work with the community.

So, what’s next?

Further reach: In December 2016, DD initiated a re-telecast of MKBKSH’s two seasons during the 3:30 p.m. slot, which is considered primetime to reach out to the key target audience of women. This move reflects DD’s belief in the power of entertainment education to change social norms. The fact that the channel initiated the re-telecast, without charge, signals popular demand for the series and a positive assessment of its impact.

Moreover, in the current education entertainment universe, MKBKSH could reach 350 million viewers over a period of three years, according to a study PFI commissioned. While access to television remains high in the country, Internet penetration has grown at an annual rate of 30%. A mix that includes TV, digital VOD platforms, social media, mobile platforms, radio and offline engagement would help increase MKBKSH’s reach. Clearly, MKBKSH’s future reach is being viewed in this context and in light of its successes to date and its potential to challenge and change social norms in lasting ways. With this in mind, PFI is working on maintaining continuity and momentum post season two through a reel-to-real life web series of short video clips on actual stories of change that can be attributed to MKBKSH.

New applications: Learning from MKBKSH’s success, PFI is exploring and fundraising for an education entertainment series at the centre of a 360-degree communications initiative on sanitation. It is built on the premise that educating and empowering the community through relevant messages, constant recall and repetition through multimedia can change the knowledge, attitude and behaviour of individuals, families and communities, leading to participatory action for cleanliness, sanitation and hygiene in public and private spaces. The success of the MKBKSH model lends itself to replication on other issues.

1.National Family Health Survey III

2.World Health Organisation – Adolescent pregnancy


Ms. Muttreja shared lessons on entertainment education at a recent meeting of the OECD Development Communication Network (DevCom). Join DevCom at the Global Festival of Ideas for Sustainable Development on 1-3 March, or follow DevCom on Facebook.


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