Using radio to promote safe motherhood: the Taru initiative

In our readings for this week, we learned about the power of a seemingly simple device: the radio. The Mary Myers article; “Why Radio Matters” made a case for the potential that the radio has to save lives and improve health outcomes by broadcasting health messages in form of radio soap operas. This may seem like a weird concept to us, but it has been proven successful in many developing countries around the world. I will share a case study from Bihar, India where a radio soap opera show was used to lower fertility rates, therefore decreasing maternal mortality.

Bihar is the poorest state in India and has the highest fertility rates. The average fertility rate in India is 2.6, yet the rate in Bihar remains above four. Only 34% of single females in Bihar reported using contraception of any kind, according to the 2001 Census in India. High fertility rates contribute greatly to maternal. A local NGO, Janani (which provides reproductive health care), a non-profit “Population Communication International,” and researchers from Ohio University paired up to address the dismal maternal health situation in Bihar. They produced and entertainment-education campaign targeting about 190 million men and women living in rural Bihar and three neighboring states. They reached their target audience through a radio program soap opera that aired once a week for a year. This 52- episode series was about the life of a fictional woman named Taru. As Vijaykumar (2008) states, the campaign sought to, “motivate listeners to take charge of their own health, seek health services, and better their living” (p. 182).

The campaign was a great success. Baseline vs. follow-up surveys of 1,500 households in Bihar showed that there was an increase in awareness family planning and an overall greater approval from people’s social networks about the use of family planning after the radio series. Utilization of family planning services also increased which portrays a great success; not only was this campaign able to educate and inform its audience, it actually caused behavior change which is not always an immediate outcome of mass media campaigns. In addition, condoms and other forms of contraception and pregnancy test sales increased “exponentially,” in several villages according to Vijaykumar (2008, p. 184). The study even found that there was an overall increase in gender equality beliefs among the respondents, which is a huge step in the right direction for maternal health because maternal mortality stems from the general lack of value placed on women’s lives in many developing countries. The fact that there were changes not only at the individual level, but also at the community and service-demand level highlights the extent of the success of this campaign. It was also able to influence social norms and behaviors, which is a huge barrier to public health movements and is especially important in a destitute area like Bihar where traditional cultural beliefs often persist and present themselves as barriers to modern public health campaigns. The only obvious downfall of this campaign in my opinion is that it only used one channel to attempt to reach a population of 190 million, but clearly, it still worked.

Radios can do more than you thought, huh?

Reference: Vijaykumar, S. (2008). Communicating safe motherhood: Strategic messaging in a globalized world. Marriage & Family Review, 44(2-3), 173-199. doi:10.1080/01494920802177378

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