6. Conversation with Poonam Muttreja

In 2014, the Population Foundation of India launched “Main Kuch Bhi Kar Sakti Hoon” (MKBKSH https://mkbksh.org/), designed to empower women through the dissemination of knowledge and awareness using mass media channels, such as radio and television.

1.     How do you think the series impacted the youth, especially adolescent girls? Did they have any impact on parents and how they treat their girl children?

Population Foundation of India (PFI) launched Main Kuch Bhi Kar Sakti Hoon (MKBKSH) – ‘I, A Woman, Can Achieve Anything’, an entertainment-education initiative in 2014, to promote gender equality, empowerment of women and improved health-seeking behaviors within families and communities. A total of 183 episodes over three seasons of MKBKSH have been broadcast till date over Doordarshan (DD) and All India Radio (AIR).  The viewers who watched the programme comprised 52% women and 48% men. 40% of the respondents who watched the series were in the age group of 15-24 years. MKBKSH has been able to make a difference across India, with women and girls raising their voices against the practice of early marriage, showing confidence to discuss and negotiate on issues such as family planning and domestic violence. The series impacted the youth positively.

  1. The evaluation of season 1 showed that the proportion of young girls who felt that early marriage led to a loss of opportunity for education increased significantly from 24% in the baseline survey to 39% in the endline survey. The evaluation showed the proportion of women exposed to the series who thought that the “ideal age for a woman to have her first child is 21-25 years” increased from the baseline figure of 38% to 46%.
  2. In season 2, the programme helped the youth – who watched it – understand that practising family planning (FP) would lead to the financial well-being of the family in comparison to the youth in the comparison group.
  3. The viewers of MKBKSH Season 3 indicated a significantly higher level of perceived importance for a girl and her parents to delay her marriage until she completes her education and starts earning than non-viewers, and also at post-test compared to pretest.


2.     Can you talk a bit more about the “Reel to Real” series and how it influenced parents in investing in girls’ education?

From amongst the issues showcased in the MKBKSH series, the Population Foundation of India documented and produced five films based on the change in behaviours and released them as a series – ‘Reel to Real’. These films are based on inspiring role models, both women and men, who are leading change or have challenged social norms in their respective communities influenced by MKBKSH.

21-year-old Ladkuwar Khushwaha is the first girl from her village in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh to go to college. She has had to battle the wrath of upper-caste men in the village who didn’t want her to study out of fear that the suppressed girls and women from their families would want to do the same. Inspired by the show MKBKSH, she convinced her parents to abandon their plans for her marriage. “Invest in my education what you want to give for my dowry,” she told them.  Armed with a supportive family and a drive to take charge of her own life, Ladkunwar inspired 10 more girls in the village to take up higher studies.


3.     Do you think that these kinds of edutainment series can increase women’s agency in marital decisions?

The entertainment-education strategy draws directly upon Bandura’s (1977 and 1997) social learning theory, which posits that an individual learns by observing and imitating the overt behaviour of other individuals who serve as role models for the new behaviour, thereby gaining a sense of self-efficacy (an individual’s belief that he or she is able to control specific outcomes in life)6. Entertainment-Education is designed to influence behaviour within the framework of content that is entertaining, intentionally weaving important health and social issues into powerful storytelling that draw in millions of viewers. Over the last few decades, entertainment-education has been successfully used globally, especially in Mexico, Brazil, and South Africa, to enhance knowledge, change behaviour and transform social norms on gender rights and young people’s issues.

According to a third-party evaluation of the second season of MKBKSH, married women exposed to the programme were 1.1 times more likely to initiate a discussion on family planning as compared to women from the un-exposed group. Also, married female viewers were 1.2 times more likely to use modern contraceptives in the next 6 months compared to married female non-viewers.

The story of one of the Reel to Real heroes – ‘Nirma Devi’ – was chosen for inclusion in BBC’s 100 Women initiative7. Nirma Devi was inspired by MKBKSH to spread the word on contraception within her community, going against the established social norms, thus ‘’. normalizing what most of India considers taboo.. You’d see her husband shy away from some questions, but not Nirma Devi. She attributes this change to watching MKBKSH along with the intervention by a local NGO.


4.     (a) What according to you should be the approach for increasing women’s agency in marriage? (b) Can you please share more about your initiative on “#LambiSagai” and the effect it may have had on women’s agency? (c) How do men react to such initiatives?

The Population Foundation of India incorporated in its communication strategies and research methods the markers related to family planning, women’s empowerment, and gender equality in all three seasons of Main Kuch Bhi Kar Sakti Hoon. The repeated-measures analysis of the field experiment data by independent evaluators showed significant effects of viewership and time on the idea of Lambi Sagai. Viewers’ perceived importance for a girl to delay marriage, until she finishes education and starts earning, was higher than non-viewers’, and also grew over time from baseline to endline. This pattern applied to both male and female viewers, single and married.


5.     Child marriage is still practiced in several regions of the country, albeit at a falling rate over the years. What kind of approach can the government adopt to encourage increases in women’s age at marriage? What do you think will be the effect of increasing women’s legal age of marriage?

Early marriage has societal sanction and is, ironically, seen as a solution by the communities, not as a problem. Increasing the legal age of marriage without a shift in communities’ perceptions around the practice can have several negative consequences. Increasing the legal age will mean a large number of married persons will be deemed underage, thereby putting a question mark around the legality of their marriages.

While we undoubtedly need to work hard to implement laws around child marriage and ensure girls get marriage after the legal age, we must also work towards addressing the root causes of early marriages. One way to way to end the practice of child marriage is to provide girls an equal opportunity in education and professional skilling to fulfil their dreams and aspirations in addition to bringing about an attitudinal change among communities.

The government must ensure the convergence of efforts of various government departments, civil society organizations, and other development partners in ending the prevalence of child marriage.

We must also invest in targeted social and behaviour change communication strategies to end child marriages. Population Foundation of India’s transmedia initiative Main Kuch Bhi Kar Sakti Hoon (I, A Woman, Can Achieve Anything) is one such example. The findings from an evaluation of the series illustrated that reinforcement of messages on the harmful effects of child marriage brought about a positive shift in the attitude of girls and parents who were exposed to the program.

Finally, the government must prioritize access to information and services on sexual and reproductive health, mental health, and nutrition services for women and girls, especially those from the most marginalized communities to ensure that no one is left behind.


6.     How important is education for enhancing women’s decision-making power in the marital household?  According to you, how much does women’s age at marriage matter in post-marriage household decision-making?

National Family Health Survey – NFHS 5 (2019-21) has observed a decline in the percentage of women aged 2024 years who married before the age of 18. However, it is still high at 23% against 27% in NFHS 4 (2015-16). The survey shows that women who had 12 or more years of schooling marry much later than other women. The median age at first marriage for women aged 25-49 increases from 17.1 years for women with no schooling to 22.8 years for women with 12 or more years of schooling.

Education plays a critical role in enhancing women’s decision-making power within the marital household. Education promotes the idea that women have an equal right to participate in decision-making processes and have their opinions valued and respected. But it should not be viewed as the sole determinant of decision-making authority within a post-marriage household. The impact should be considered within the broader context of societal, cultural, and individual circumstances.

In particular, regressive societal (patriarchal) norms often end up compromising the woman’s decision-making powers if it’s found to be in conflict with the man’s. It is therefore essential to address the societal norms, practices, and stereotypes through social and behaviour change communication initiatives such as Main Kuch Bhi Kar Sakti Hoon.


6. Rogers, M. Everett, et al. Effects of an Entertainment-Education Radio Soap Opera on Family Planning Behavior in Tazania. s.l. : Popuation Council, 1999
7. 100 Women: Breaking the contraception taboo in India

Poonam Muttreja is the Executive Director of Population Foundation of India. For over 40 years, she has been a strong advocate for women’s health, reproductive and sexual rights, and rural livelihoods. Before joining Population Foundation of India, she served as the India Country Director of the John D and Catherine T MacArthur Foundation for 15 years.

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