TV: the best contraceptive?

Blog Post by Dr Paul Williamson

Fred Pearce, author of PeopleQuake, has recently argued in the Conservation Magazine that the spread of television is closely linked to falls in fertility rates, citing evidence from countries as far flung as India, Brazil, Jamaica and Mexico.

India's Total Fertility Rate (Source: Pearce, F (2013) ‘TV as birth control’, Conservation Magazine)

India’s Total Fertility Rate (Source: Pearce, F (2013) ‘TV as birth control’, Conservation Magazine)

 If this sounds a bit far-fetched, he is not alone in these views. For example, did you know that the British Government’s Department for International Development, along with Marie Stopes International (a charity that promotes sexual health and family planning) co-sponsor a TV soap in Kenya called Makutano Junction, which fosters an understanding of family planning issues.

Rates of TV Ownership in India (Source: Pearce, F (2013) ‘TV as birth control’, Conservation Magazine)

Rates of TV Ownership in India (Source: Pearce, F (2013) ‘TV as birth control’, Conservation Magazine)

The link between television and fertility rates is contested. It could simply be that television ownership is a proxy for local levels of economic development, with more affluent households and societies tending to opt for fewer children and own more TVs. Or it could be, as Fred Pearce argues, that TV shows model more affluent, emancipated (and childless) lifestyles for women that have a direct bearing on the attitudes and behaviours of those watching them.

Either way it is intriguing that TV shows appear to be seen as suitable recipients for ‘development’ aid; and equally intriguing to consider the relative importance of persuading the poorest people in the world to have fewer children versus, say, addressing the inequities in global trade that help keep them in poverty in the first place, or persuading those in the rich world to consume a less unfair share of the world’s resources… all debates that are covered as part of our geography degree programmes.


Studying Gender and Mobility in India

3rd Year BA Student Becy Ainsworth is the latest student to write about her dissertation research for the LivUniGeog blog.

“This summer I spent two months in Jodhpur in northern India volunteering for a local NGO whilst conducting my dissertation research. I was able to combine my desire to volunteer and travel with my academic work, each of which benefited the other. Having the basic knowledge of India’s politics, economy and society from various modules allowed my research to delve deeper into issues, which at the start of my trip I would probably have overlooked or misunderstood. Coming from the ‘western’ world, it was extremely challenging for me as an outsider to grasp the complex and diverse values in India that were so alien to me. As someone who loves travelling and understanding local culture, I found that combining that with my research abroad changed my entire understanding of the country.

The City of Jodhpur, Rajasthan, India

The City of Jodhpur, Rajasthan, India

My research was a response to the horrific gang-rape of a woman on a bus in Delhi in December 2012. Shocked that such an act could occur on public transport, I decided to investigate wider practices of mobility – which is do, how and why people move around on a day-to-day basis. I particularly focussed on how women used public and private space and public transport systems – as a country that is strongly patriachal, Indian women often have many challenges in their daily travels around urban areas like Jodhpur. I conducted interviews and focus groups, and kept a detailed research diary noting my conversations and interactions with local people and my own experiences of mobility in the city. The language barrier was only an issue for the focus group (everyone else spoke perfect English) and I needed a translators during and after the group (when transcribing the recording) – both translators had quite different interpretations so that was my greatest challenge during the research process. The women were so open, enthusiastic and willing to share their experiences and opinions with me, which made my research a really insightful process.

Teaching some of the Women at the Sambhali Trust

Teaching some of the women at the Sambhali Trust

My role in Sambhali Trust was teaching English and maths to low-caste women and children, and to run workshops that would help with the empowerment of women. I was fully absorbed into Indian culture, which meant my daily interactions with the men, women and children of Jodhpur were valuable for my research and more general understanding of Rajasthani society. I was fortunate in that my everyday conversations revealed mobility to be a prevalent issue in women’s lives, as it was important to me that my area of research was relevant and addressed serious problems.

A notice for a women's helpline on a bus in Jodhpur

A notice for a women’s helpline on a bus in Jodhpur

Working with and researching in another country with a completely different culture to my own was a challenge and a very steep learning curve. In India, things tend happen very ‘last minute’, which was stressful for my western mind-set at times. For example, Sambhali Trust organised a conference on child sexual abuse, which is an incredibly taboo subject throughout India. We invited 60 local professionals and dignitaries related to the field, but only began doing so five days before the event (which we had spent six weeks planning). This was obviously very nerve-wracking for the European volunteers used to planning events far in advance, however most people invited to the conference attended and it was a real success, with Sambhali Trust establishing a new project two days later. Another example is how I tried to interview someone that I was living with; we set a time and place every day for my final two weeks but only on the morning before I left did we both find the time for the interview to actually happen. I definitely learned the art of patience!

I kept a blog during my time at Sambhali Trust explaining about the charity’s projects, campaigns and workshops if anyone has an interest in women’s empowerment or development work.I would really recommend students to consider researching abroad. The endless possibilities of the research subject, the opportunity to gain a deeper understanding of another culture, and the skills you develop from the daily challenges of the research have made it an incredible experience that I would love to do again (minus the dissertation write up bit!).”

Lecturer’s Research in South India

This summer, one of our lecturer’s, Dr Andy Davies, is undertaking a research fellowship in Southern India exploring the political and cultural history of the state of Tamil Nadu, and in particular the city of Puducherry (or as it’s more often known, Pondicherry). Here he explains what he’s up to and why.

“I’m in India on a fellowship organised by the British Association of South Asian Studies, in collaboration with the European Consortium for Asian Field Study and the British Academy, and will be spending two months in New Delhi, Chennai and Pondicherry, where I’ll be based in the Ecole Francais d’Extrême Orient.

The EFEO in Puducherry is typical of French Colonial Architecture in the 'Ville Blanc'

The EFEO in Puducherry is typical of French Colonial Architecture in the ‘Ville Blanc’

The research I’m doing is looking at anti-colonialism in south India in the early 20th Century, particularly looking at Pondicherry because, as a French colony, a group of nationalist activists who wanted India to become independent from British rule, sought political exile from the British there from 1908 onwards. Geographically, this is interesting, as the men who did this were in their ‘homeland’ (many of them, including the poet Subramania Bharati, were Tamil and fiercely proud of this identity), yet were also in ‘exile’ at the same time. Whilst these men and women suffered many hardships whilst in Pondicherry, they were part of international political networks that stretched from India as far as Paris and London. The British Government of India saw these as dangerous ‘terrorist’ networks, and much of the language used in official reports is similar to the language we see used today about organisations like Al-Qaeda.

Statue of Subramania Bharati in Puducherry

Statue of Subramania Bharati in Puducherry

These colonial histories are important to Geography in many ways – in Pondicherry, French colonialism shaped the culture – for instance it is possible to order red wine with a beef steak for dinner – something that is culturally very difficult elsewhere in India! The French influence is also clear in the urban fabric of the city. At the height of colonial rule, the city was divided on grounds of race between the ‘Ville Blanc’ (the French district) and the ‘Ville Noir’ (the Tamil district), and the differences between the two areas still exist today. On top of these, there are also political legacies as well – Subramania Bharati died in 1921, long before India gained its independence, but his poetry was important to people involved in the freedom struggle after he died. His work is still important today, schools and streets in Tamil Nadu are named after him, and more controversially, the poetry he wrote whilst in Pondicherry has been used by Tamils in Sri Lanka to argue for a Tamil homeland in that country (Frost, 2006).
My research will produce a number of academic papers, but also ties into a wider research network of people studying Indian culture and society within the University, and links to the ETIC project based in the University, as well as my own interests in the politics and history of South Asia.”


Frost, CM (2006) ‘Bhakti and nationalism in the poetry of Subramania Bharati’ Hindu Studies 10, p. 150-166

India Visit for Student

3rd Year Undergraduate Student Jon Hunt reflects on his time on a UKIERI Study India Programme last year.

I spent six weeks last summer in India, (mostly Delhi), as part of the UKIERI (UK-India Education and Research Initiative) Study India Programme. As a geography student I found the opportunity to learn about a great economic and social power by actually visiting the country itself too great to miss. I enjoyed various experiences around India both as part of the programme and my own adventures, and I tried to reflect on their significance from a national and global perspective. The programme involved visits to cultural and political sites around Delhi (as a background to India’s past and present); talks from prominent business people and politicians; an internship with a choice of organisations including the Tata Corporation and some NGOs; and talks in schools and universities. Such activities allowed an opportunity to consider the Indian story from a variety of backgrounds before a series of workshops were provided in UK schools in an attempt to engage the future generation with global issues and to develop the enthusiasm to solve them.

What I consider to be my first experience of India was a lady on the plane who proceeded to force-feed me popcorn before we’d even spoken. This remained one of my fondest memories of the trip and came to epitomise the generosity and friendliness of the people of India. It is easy to be alienated by the cultural curiosity of many people in India – the staring, the questions, the giggling – but if one accepts this then an endless stream of chit chat and jokes can be shared. Some of my most enlightening times came not in a great temple or a guided tour but in talking to other young people. This was a generation that was embracing modernisation, wanted to connect with the global society but was also very wary of following the route towards ‘western’ capitalism. As a result I felt we shared certain commonalities despite upbringings that likely couldn’t have been more different. Of course there were times when I didn’t always feel so welcome and it would be wrong to make such broad assumptions. Yet, if you don’t let people treat you as a tourist or regard the country as a museum then you can quickly begin to break through the barriers.

My initial exploration involved a life and death struggle to cross the road where lanes, speed limits or even traffic lights don’t seem to be respected. The heat was unbearable and the degree of poverty and waste was striking. Such was the colour, the chaos and the variation, the first couple of days involved frantic photo taking, before I began to stop acting like a spectator in a zoo and instead opened myself up to the people and the country. Once I took the plunge, India was not such a different universe and began to feel like a place I had belonged to for a long time. As we wandered round temples of religions I didn’t follow and took part in rituals I knew nothing about, I began to respect their openness and they seemed to respect my curiosity. A communal ritual of fire in a Hindu temple was a perfect way to end my first week and gave the group a chance to reflect upon a hectic series of activities in an even more hectic country. We revelled in soft chanting and the warmth of fire, set against the backdrop of a slowly calming monsoon.

Jon participating in a Hindu fire ceremony

Jon participating in a Hindu fire ceremony

The first chance to experience India as an individual came at the end of the first week. Five of us instead hired a taxi to take us the eight hour drive north to the town of Rishikesh – known as ‘the home of yoga and meditation’ – which rested in the foothills of the Himalayas. We were initially greeted by cows, thieving monkeys and a hairy gentleman who looked like he had more than a few stories to tell. Without much explanation he began to lead us off the beaten track and up into the hills; like excited children we eagerly followed. We decided to ignore the common warnings on this one and it paid off: instead of finding ourselves dead in a ditch, we were showed a fascinating abandoned village in the trees, originally built as a meditative retreat. With the sun setting the silence was eery as we explored darkened corridors and inspected inspirational graffiti.

Other excursions included an obligatory trip to Agra to visit the Taj Mahal. After hearing so much about it, I cannot pretend I wasn’t slightly under-whelmed at first: even at sunrise there were already crowds of people and the excessive photo opportunities seemed just a formality after travelling so far. That said, the tomb rising over the dirty, sprawling town does make it all the more imposing. Once the rising sun cast a warm glow over the white marble and I could appreciate its intricacies, the building revealed its true beauty. I sat for a good couple of hours taking it in, before I saw a monkey dragged past me on a leash and being beaten with a stick. I then wondered how a country could simultaneously invoke feelings of awe and disgust. That was perhaps the hardest part about being in India; it is a country that is open about its culture, that doesn’t seem to hide its corruption and, as a result, you can witness the most uplifting and the most saddening aspects of humanity.

Jaipur seemed to encompass almost everything you expect from India including combinations of narrow, winding streets and large open bazaars; snake charmers and puppeteers; bustling restaurants and street food vendors and a trip to the top of the Red Fort on the back of an elephant. Set against a backdrop of hills and lakes, the Fort provided an impressive view before we travelled to ‘Monkey Temple’ – one of my favourite sites of India. Walking up a hill through swarms of running, playing monkeys helped to portray a country that boasts the extremes of nature (humans included) and, despite the young boy guiding us throwing the occasional stone to ward off the over-enthusiastic ones, both sets of beings seemed content with each other’s company. In a similar way, the family who dwelled at the hill-top shrine were open to our presence and the parents watched calmly on as we sat and played with their children. Our two cultures may never truly understand each other – the phones and cameras we flashed and the respects we paid may seem shallow and superficial, whilst their spiritual artefacts were never going to invoke authentic belief on our part. Yet just as human and monkey may need each other more than they believe, perhaps it is only the endless diversity of culture that creates any meaningful significance.

Cultural exchange?

Cultural exchange?

Back in Delhi, to highlight a further issue in Indian society, we visited an orphanage, which provided an enlightening experience. I was somewhat reluctant to make the visit at first, feeling the children were being used as tourist attractions. Despite this I found it thoroughly enjoyable and can’t remember the last time I smiled for so long. Once again wishing to avoid generalisations, I have to admit I have never met such happy and positive children and cannot help think there is something implicitly wrong with the construction of our own society that is currently experiencing an epidemic in childhood apathy and depression.

Crowds celebrating Eid, the end of Ramadan, at India Gate in New Delhi

Crowds celebrating Eid, the end of Ramadan, at India Gate in New Delhi

Once the four-week programme in Delhi had concluded it was time to take the adventure elsewhere, this time alone, as I headed to Goa and Kerala for the final 10 days before term was due to start again. My time in Goa essentially involved relaxation, and, after four weeks in the fumes and chaos of Delhi and a jam-packed programme of activities, it was the perfect antidote. There was to be no plan for the days after rolling out of bed to sunshine, nature and a lush tropical scenery.

For the final few days I jumped on a ‘quick’ eighteen-hour train down to Kerala. The train itself was an experience – getting lost in the views and striking up conversation with a few interesting characters; the majority of whom seemed to find me just as interesting and, for some reason, absolutely hilarious. The mere sight of me alone on the train hanging out the open door, partly for the breeze but mostly because I hadn’t grasped the magnitude of the dash for seats upon boarding, was enough to invoke lots of giggles amongst passengers. I stayed for a night on Varkala cliff, an impressive stretch of rocks and beaches and an apparent rendezvous for travellers from across the world. For the final day I headed out to Eravikulam National Park. The journey through forests and mountains in the morning sun seemed a fitting tribute to the end of my time in India and a stark contrast to my first experiences of the country.

Keralan Sunset

Keralan Sunset

As I took the flight back to Delhi the next day I reflected on the frantic stress I’d endured the previous few days in return for several moments of pure bliss and the relationship seemed to sum up the experience of travelling in India. The prospect can be daunting but, if one takes the time and makes the effort, the rewards can be truly extraordinary.