EPIBuilding a Sustainable Future
Lester R. Brown

Chapter 10. Stabilizing Population by Reducing Fertility: Using Soap Operas and Sitcoms

While the attention of researchers has focused on the role of formal education in reducing fertility, soap operas on radio and television can even more quickly change people's attitudes about reproductive health, gender equity, family size, and environmental protection. A well-written soap opera can have a profound short-term effect on population growth. It costs little and can proceed even while formal educational systems are being expanded.

This approach was pioneered by Miguel Sabido, a vice president of Televisa, Mexico's national television network. The power of this medium was first illustrated by Sabido when he did a series of soap opera segments on illiteracy. The day after one of the characters in his soap opera visited a literacy office wanting to learn how to read and write, a quarter-million people showed up at these offices in Mexico City. Eventually 840,000 Mexicans enrolled in literacy courses after watching the series.43

Sabido dealt with contraception in a soap opera entitled Acompaneme, which translates as Come With Me. According to one observer, "This serial, which ran over two years, featured a fairly typical, poor young family. The mother, a sympathetic but ignorant character, was desperate to stop at the three children she already had but didn't know how. Her husband, macho and lusty, resented her efforts to try the rhythm method. Over a period of time, and many melodramatic arguments and tears, the woman decided to seek the advice of another woman she knew who had 'miraculously' restricted her family size. Eventually she learned about birth control. By the time she and her smiling husband walked out of the gynecologist's office with a prescription in hand, values had changed
in this family and among viewers—about ideal family size, about not having more children than one can afford and about the woman's role in her family."44

As these family planning soap operas continued over the next decade, the birth rate fell by 34 percent. In 1986, Mexico was awarded the United Nations Population Prize for its outstanding achievement in slowing population growth. David Poindexter, founder of Population Communications International (PCI) in 1985, used his new organization to promote Sabido's model as a prototype for other countries. Today PCI is operating in 6 of the 10 most populous countries—China, India, Brazil, Pakistan, Nigeria, and Mexico.45

In Kenya, PCI has developed a similarly oriented soap opera that has aired on the radio, the medium of choice for 96 percent of the country's people. After the highly popular early evening news, people stay tuned for a radio serial entitled Ushikwapo Shikamana (which means If Assisted, Assist Yourself). With close to half the country's people following the twice weekly program, this has provided an ideal vehicle for communicating information on a range of topics from reproductive health and family planning to environment, gender equality, and protection from AIDS. These examples are but two of many that illustrate the success of radio and television in raising public understanding and in changing attitudes.46


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43. Pamela Polston, "Lowering the Boom: Population Activist Bill Ryerson is Saving the World-One 'Soap' at a Time," Seven Days, available at www.populationmedia.org/popnews/popnews.html, viewed 6 December 2000.

44. Ibid.

45. Ibid.; Kathy Henderson, "Telling Stories, Saving Lives: Hope from Soaps," Ford Foundation Report, fall 2000.

46. Henderson, op. cit. note 45.


Copyright © 2001 Earth Policy Institute