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Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Lecture: Gender Inequality in India and the Power of TV

The experience of listening to Economics Professor Emily Oster’s lecture was similar to reading Freakonomics in discovering innovative relationships between seemingly unrelated trends. The young professor from the University Chicago gave a lecture entitled Gender Inequality in India and the Power of TV yesterday. Oster gave a PowerPoint presentation of her paper that observed the relationship that the growing prevalence of cable network in India is one cause in boosting women’s status in villages.

Oster’s paper is part of her collection of research focusing on economic development and primary health economics. Her paper on Gender Inequality, coauthored with Robert Jenson from Brown University, stemmed from previous research that analyzed the connection between the disease Hepatitis and gender imbalances in developing nations. India, particularly, has “the most salient gender inequality,” said Oster. “When people get access to media, attitudes towards women improve. Women get more autonomy, can go out without telling without telling their husbands, and are more enrolled in school.”

Autonomy from men was the main indicator of women's progress. Oster prefaced the centerpiece of her research by presenting a slew of statistics to show the powerlessness of women in India. 33% of women said that it was acceptable for a man to beat his wife, while 20-40% said that it was accepted conditionally in some situations. “The slides show the decision making things that women don’t have control over,” said Oster.

Families tend to undervalue their daughters because of costs of dowries and dominance of son earning income. Part of the reason sons are the dominant bread-winners are because daughters are not sent to school as often. Economics, however, argues that educating women is more worthwhile than educating men. Educated women tend to spend household budgets more wisely and impart their knowledge onto the children. The heart of the problem lies in the attitudes towards women.

Oster’s data included families in 160 Indian villages that recently acquired cable network in 2001, 2002 and 2003. Through graphs, the research showed that attitudes towards women trended upwards in families who acquired televisions in 2002 and 2003.

But why television? Popular Indian shows include soap-operas, game-shows and sports channels. Although gender equity is not the focus of the soaps, the attitudes towards women on the shows are different than the viewers own environment. The featured families were upper-middle class urbanites with problems of Desperate Housewives.

One specific hypothesis argues that the shows families’ demand in goods to more “stuff,” as in the shows and a shift in preference to have fewer kids. The role of television in new family life also changed time use in opportunity cost to streamline time efficiency.

When Oster opened the floor to questions, one main issue lingered. “Is there going to be a backlash?” One audience member cited a 2004 study that showed that domestic violence began to increase. The question, however, remained unresolved.

By Ramya Gopal


Forget yourself for others, and others will never forget you.

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