Now that Sony Has Pulled the Plug on Pehredaar Piya Ki, Let's Do the Same For Child Marriage
After months of controversy, complaints and even an intervention by the Broadcasting Content Complaints Council, the makers of television show Pehredaar Piya Ki finally took the show off air last month. The show was slammed by critics who accused makers Sony of promoting child marriage by showing a marriage between a nine-year-old boy and an 18-year-old woman.
The pulling of Pehredaar Piya Ki is not going to solve India’s child marriage problem, but could the solution still be found on our television screens? With 47 percent of girls married before their 18th birthday, India has the highest number of child brides in the world. Efforts to address child marriage have increased, but we need to do much more to see results on a wider scale. And just as television shows can promote regressive ideas about child marriage, they may also hold the key to ending it.
As we know, ideas about patriarchy, class and caste are not easily changed. In some communities, child marriage is something a child’s parents would have experienced, and their parent’s parents, and so on. If that’s what they went through, why should it be any different for the next generation? It’s like this simply because society has accepted it as normal and parents see no alternative — particularly when they are already struggling to feed, educate and keep their daughters safe.
Mass media has long been recognised as a way to prompt large-scale behaviour change. Recent studies by Girls Not Brides and Population Foundation of India suggest that it could also be a used to address child marriage. In communities where sensitive issues are not openly talked about, for example, we can use storytelling to start conversations that wouldn’t normally surface. Storytelling brings audiences on a journey through characters who they can relate to. Suddenly, an audience can see things from other people’s perspectives — the young girl under pressure to marry because that is what is expected of her, a family struggling to make ends meet and seeing their daughter’s marriage as a short-term expense with long-term benefits, the teenager trapped in an abusive marriage.
Characters in television or radio shows have the power to become inspirational role models to girls, boys, their parents, and whole communities. A great example of this is the Indian television series Main Kuch Bhi Kar Sakti Hoon (I, A Woman, Can Achieve Anything), produced by Population Foundation of India. The lead character, Dr Sneha Mathur, leaves Mumbai to work in a small village where she tackles local challenges such as child marriage, patriarchy, teen pregnancy and domestic violence. Through her struggles and triumphs, she becomes a role model for women and girls in the village. Two seasons of the series, 131 episodes in total, were aired on national TV channel Doordarshan and All India Radio, with an audience reach of over 400 million. An evaluation of the series showed that people who watched the show increased their knowledge of the adverse consequences of child marriage.
BARC India, the TV viewership monitoring agency, has estimated that television is watched by 780 million people in India. As access to television and other media channels increases, entertainment-education has the potential to reach large numbers of people in a cost-effective way. And the more people reached, the more people who might start to think about alternative roles for girls and women.
But entertainment-education is not a silver bullet. As with most interventions, to be truly effective it needs to be combined with programmes aimed at working with communities, families and young girls. Girls need to be valued by the societies they live in and have viable alternatives to marriage, such as education, vocational training and a safe and productive way of making a living. Policymakers and civil society organisations are also critical in ensuring the policies, services and infrastructure are there to translate shifting attitudes into shifting behaviours.
Nevertheless, television shows and other forms of media can, and do, play an important part in educating audiences about the benefits of ending child marriage. In a way, the outrage we’ve seen over Pehredaar Piya Ki is encouraging, as it reflects an appetite for positive, progressive storylines on TV. So as well as pulling the plug on shows that promote child marriage, let’s make more shows that will help us end it.
(Poonam Muttreja is the Executive Director of Population Foundation of India (PFI), a Girls Not Brides member organisation)