Issues and Solutions
A recent report from the IFJ and SAMSN examines the various pressing issues South Asian women journalists face and offers some answers.
Media is perhaps one of the most thriving industries in today’s world. Rapid expansion in the industry has led to an increase in the demand for media persons. The growing reach of the media has blurred the concept of borders. These days, journalists travel to far-flung places to cover events of international importance and many have even sacrificed their lives in the line of duty.
There was a time when journalism was considered a men-only profession. Not anymore. Today, female journalists work alongside their male colleagues in the print and electronic media. In recent years, many western female journalists have covered wars in different parts of the world.
But sadly, despite all the progress, the working conditions remain precarious for women journalists in South Asia. The silver lining, in spite of all the difficulties, is that South Asian women are joining journalism in large numbers though they have to work in harsher conditions than their male counterparts.
Between February and July 2013, the South Asia Media Solidarity Network (SAMSN) – an alliance of journalists’ trade unions, press freedom organizations and journalists in South Asia committed to working together to promote freedom of expression, freedom of association and journalists’ rights in South Asian countries – organized a series of conferences in Afghanistan, Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.
Conducted as part of the IFJSAMSN project on gender equality, the aim of the initiative was to highlight the pressing issues women journalists face and the need to develop a strong network whereby women journalists in South Asia can work together and organize themselves around common causes and concerns.
Some common problems reported by the journalists of all South Asian countries that participated in this project were discrimination in the types of work assigned to them, promotional opportunities, sexual harassment, lack of maternity benefits and poor support conditions for working mothers. But problems vary from country to country. In Afghanistan, for example, there is no safety for women journalists or guarantee for their lives, especially if they cover and publicize critical issues like corruption or sexual violence against women.
Afghanistan presents a chilling reminder of the truly precarious status of women journalists in South Asia. Afghanistan’s media opened up after 2006 and the country now has around 100 radio stations, at least 75 television stations and scores of news publications. According to information from the Afghan Ministry of Information and Culture, women comprise around 1500 of the country’s 10,000 journalists.
However, for Afghan women who wish to join journalism, the first obstacle is often their own family as cultural taboos are strong in Afghan society. They also have to face social restrictions and the terror of warlords. Reporting is a highly dangerous field for women journalists and they are often discouraged to go out on assignments. The lack of security for women journalists has forced a large number of women to leave the profession. Since 2003, Afghanistan has lost at least five women journalists but their cases have not been investigated.
The situation is not so gloomy in Bangladesh where women journalists have held a prominent place. But there is little recognition of their issues and their struggles. Around 300 female journalists are working in Bangladesh but there are very few women at the policy-making level. Although female reporters are working on all types of news beats such as energy, economic, political, parliament, crime, sports and elections, they often face disparities in work assignments.
Fundamentalist forces like the Hefajat-e-Islam pose a great threat to women journalists. Women have been attacked and ridiculed while covering public meetings and stopped from reporting in the field. A journalist Nadia Sharmeen was brutally attacked when she was covering a Hefajat meeting.
Bhutan is a much better country for women journalists. Until 2008, there were very few newspapers in the country but now there are 12. With the growth in media outlets, the number of women journalists has also increased. The general working conditions of both male and female journalists in the country are at par. Women are paid equal or even better wages than their male counterparts.
In India, women journalists are
far more visible, especially in the broadcast media, but the recruitment of women in smaller cities is still very low, partly because of poor pay and working conditions. Increasing criminalization and militarization also affects women and limits their opportunities. There have been several high profile instances of sexual harassment in the workplace but institutional mechanisms and adherence to court orders on dealing with these cases are absent.
In Nepal, women journalists are a little more visible now, especially in capital Kathmandu but they are still struggling with recruitment, challenging assignments and safety. For women from hill districts or from the Terai areas (the plains) of Nepal, the situation is much more precarious. Here, social attitudes coupled with a complete lack of recognition and much less support from the media houses make recruitment and work assignments a daily challenge. Sexual harassment is also widely prevalent, though women hardly speak openly about it.
In Pakistan, women journalists are at risk of losing jobs because of poor security and low recruitment. In areas like Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkwa, very few women are represented in the media. Those who are working are given stereotyped beats though a few have ventured into covering sports, politics and business. But for many it is still a struggle and they are regularly subjected to comments or barbs that they should be devoting their time to their families, not their careers. Women journalists in Pakistan are rarely seen as serious journalists and there is a lack of trust in their abilities by employers who will choose a man to cover an important issue.
There were also complaints of sexual harassment. With harassment being the norm, complaining is too often seen as making a big deal out of nothing. Women are expected to be silent on these issues. In job interviews, they are quizzed on their marital status or plans to have children and many women felt discriminated against because of this attitude.
There are very few women in journalists unions in Pakistan. Only 200 of the 14,000 members of the leading union of journalists, the PFUJ, are women. Women are rarely voted in to positions of authority despite being well-represented in media houses and press clubs.
The number of women journalists in Sri Lanka has increased over the years and some of them are indeed holding senior editorial positions in the news media. However, there is an ongoing struggle to ensure better coverage for women and to create an environment conducive to women professionals.
As a country that has been in a conflict for 30 years, there was little or no safety training for women journalists, who often relied on sheer common sense to survive. Now the threats are silent but as lethal as the bombs that came earlier. In just a few months, two women journalists – senior editors of leading Sri Lankan publications – were forced to leave the country after receiving threats and attacks. They were not targeted as women, but as journalists who wrote on various issues that proved problematic to the powers-that-be.
For women journalists in Tamil media, the struggle is manifold as they have little or no support systems. Attrition rates are high and women often leave seemingly without any reason. This has given rise to suspicion that sexual harassment could be a cause.
The roundtables and the gender networking conference discussed strategies and campaigns that could address the issues faced by women in South Asia. The conference also put forward a common Gender Charter that clearly sets out minimum standards, principles and actions needed to underpin gender equity in media and outlined a practical program of action to support equality in media workplaces, journalist organizations and the media itself. Some major points cover gender equality in the media, the right to expect equal access, equality of opportunity, equal rights for journalists as parents, a fair portrayal of women and gender equality and participation of women in unions and associations.
Structural reforms in the overall media industry – and particularly in journalists’ unions – are needed to improve the working conditions for women journalists in the region. There is also a need to ensure that women are properly represented in the unions’ governing bodies.