Peak & Prairie

Rocky Mountain Chapter's
Online Newsletter
August / September 1999



by William N. Ryerson
President, Population Media Center

This past February at the Cairo +5 United Nations (U.N). meeting in The Hague, governments and Non Governmental Organisations (NGOs) called upon the developed countries of the world, particularly the United States, to live up to the financial commitments they made at the U.N. Conference on Population and Development, held in Cairo in 1994.

Twenty-five years ago, I attended the first U.N. Conference on Population, held in Bucharest. The draft Programme of Action presented for adoption at that conference focused on making family planning medical services more easily accessible and on the importance of economic development for the world’s poorest countries. There was barely any mention of the status of women. A colleague of mine, David Poindexter (who is now Honorary Chair of Population Media Center), and Margaret Meade sat down together at the Bucharest conference to write a paragraph on the importance of women’s status and handed it to one of the U.S. delegates with the expressed hope that he would help to insert it in the final draft of the Plan of Action. His response: “We’re talking about family planning. What’s the status of women got to do with family planning?”

We’ve come a long way since then. In Cairo, the world community embraced the importance of elevating the role and status of women in the family and in the community as an essential element in addressing population growth issues and, independent of population issues, important as a basic human right.

The importance of women’s rights from a population perspective is driven home by the data gathered in numerous demographic and health surveys in developing countries in recent decades pointing to the fact that many women believe they do not have the right to participate with their husbands in making decisions about family size and family planning use. Moreover, many societies do not accept the importance of educating girls or give acceptance to women in the workplace outside the home. Furthermore, in some societies, a major obstacle to family planning use by women is the men—who fear that contraceptives will lead to infidelity.

In many of the largest countries of the world, marriages are still arranged for daughters by their parents, and daughters are often placed at puberty into marriages not of their choosing.

Many, if not most, societies demand that a woman must bear her husband a son. Moreover, many societies have a cultural expectation that a married couple will produce a large number of children. In Madagascar, the ideal family size is 14 children (seven sons and seven daughters); on average in sub-Saharan Africa, ideal family size is five children.

All of these cultural factors, combined with overblown fears about the safety of contraceptives (particularly when compared with the dangers of early and repeated childbearing) are a formula for large families and rapid population growth—even in the presence of contraceptive services that are now widely available in most developing countries.

The problem at the Cairo conference—as at the Bucharest conference before it—is that very few people have any idea how to go about elevating the status of women—or changing the other cultural and informational barriers that prevent achievement of replacement level childbearing.

The human species has a lot at stake in finding an answer to this dilemma. According to a Stanford University study, humans now are using or indirectly appropriating about 50 percent of the total products of photosynthesis on a worldwide basis. One more doubling of our use of all of the products of photosynthesis is not in the cards —- even if we were to eliminate all of the other animal species that currently share the planet with us.

Our generation of waste products—both toxic ones and the more benign greenhouse gases that now threaten serious global overheating—are also causing us to run into very scary reminders that the planet has limits on its capacity to support people. Overwhelmed water treatment systems, shortages of fresh water for domestic purposes and agriculture, falling per capita production of grain products over the last 15 years, loss of topsoil through erosion, massive loss of forest cover, decreasing per capita incomes in the fastest growing regions of the world, growing unemployment in much of the developing world, growing numbers of environmental refugees, and ocean fisheries on the verge of collapse in many areas are all symptoms of a serious global problem—of which the addition of 80 million new people to the population each year is a key part.

The medical model of “set up the clinic and they will come” is not sufficient to solve the population problem. Nor, as the world agreed in Cairo, are coercive or heavy-handed programs likely to be successful, let alone acceptable.

What the world community hasn’t fully embraced is that we already know much of what is needed in order to solve the problem. Promoting acceptance of small family size cannot be achieved through exhortations to patients at family planning clinics. But educating people about the benefits of small families, and providing role models to women who play a new role in the family and in society, can be done successfully and is being done in some countries.

The most successful strategy developed to date is the use of long-running serial melodramas (100 to 200 episode soap operas) in which characters evolve to become role models for the audience in elevation of women’s status, use of family planning, and adoption of small family norms. Combining entertainment with education accomplishes two goals: attracting an audience and providing an emotional impact that affects attitudes and behaviors in a way that purely educational programs can never hope to do.

Population Media Center is one of only a handful of organizations that are using this strategy. As a nonprofit, charitable organization, PMC works with health authorities and broadcasters in developing countries to enable them to create popular programs that provide entertainment value and simultaneously educate the audience about behaviors that will improve their health and well being.

In some countries, radio is the primary means of reaching people, while in others it is television. The communications revolution that has so influenced U.S. culture over the last 50 years is now a major factor in affecting cultural norms worldwide. Entertainment broadcasting has a lot of positive potential. What the experience with entertainment-education strategies reveals is that the negative messages of sex and violence we worry so much about in the U.S. media can be replaced with positive messages and useful information without losing the audience—if it is done well in the context of an entertainment methodology that has now been refined over a period of 20 years. Programs of this type in Mexico, Brazil, Kenya, Tanzania, India, and The Philippines have attracted record audiences and at the same time have led large numbers of people to adopt positive health behaviors and to accept the concept that women should be granted equal status in society.

For more information, please contact Population Media Center, 489 Thompson Road, Shelburne, Vermont 05482, or visit  

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