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.

Southasia - - CONTENTS -

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.

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