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Kamala Sarup: Media Discrimination Against Women

Media Discrimination Against Women

By Kamala Sarup

Chief Sub-Editor of Amar Asom, a popular daily in Assamese where Sabita Lakhar accused the editor of the newspaper,sexually harassing her. She wrote a protest letter to the Managing Editor.

What she got in return was a note from the management that until she submitted a clearance, certified by the Banks, her salary and other dues would be withheld by the Management. Nothing concrete has been done in her favour. She finds herself without a job.

The dreadful events of rape cases in the battlefields of Bosnia and Herzegovina were not reported until women journalists of the British Guardian went to the spot.

"As a woman journalist I have to face indecent behaviour from my senior colleagues. They pretended to be 'friendly', gained my trust and then harassed me sexually," a journalist from India said.

"Despite our will, we cannot send women journalists for reporting everywhere because there is a question of social security from all including their parents and husbands," said Mahfuz Anam, editor of The Daily Star.

"More women are employed in the media now since they are available at lower salaries on the contract system. In such circumstances gender fair reporting and practices are more difficult to promote," women's rights activist Jamuna Shah said.

A detailed survey presented to the International Federation of Journalists 24th World Congress in Seoul, South Korea recently reveals that despite the fact women comprise at least 38 per cent of the workforce in journalism, less than one per cent of media executive posts are held by women. The IFJ survey is the most comprehensive of its kind, with answers received from unions in 40 countries.

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The list of obstacles is long and it is the same, whether drawn up by women journalists in Asia, the Pacific, Latin America, Africa or Europe.

Puja Budhathoki said: "Stereotypes, cultural attitudes where women are expected to be subordinate and subservient, negative attitudes towards women journalists, employment conditions, lack of equal pay, lack of access to further training, lack of fair promotion procedures, lack of access to decision-making positions".

The International Federation of Journalists, the world's largest journalists' group, says that stereotyping of women in media and the restricted entry of women into the charmed circle and largely male world of management in journalism are key obstacles to gender equality in the media industry.

"Around the world the struggle for equality in media is a constant battle for recognition of women's rights. The issue is always there whether it is in discrimination over jobs and pay or in the diet of sexist and titillating journalism that still contributes to the difficulties faced by women in all sections of society," the IFJ said.

Now we have questions. Why do media characterise women negatively exposing only the areas of their weaknesses and vulnerabilities? Why do media not give importance to create public opinion to fight the causes which put women in vulnerable situations? Why so many programmes transmitted through the electronic media have also caused negative influence on women?

Why are women still the subjects of mental torture in all social quarters? Hundreds of women in South Asia have been murdered because of dowry and parental property. Several women have been accused in the charge of practising witchcraft. But such events are limited only to a piece of news why?.

Why are women journalists still identifying stereotyped attitudes, unfair treatment, harassment by male colleagues and job insecurity as the other reasons that prompt them to give up the profession?

Why do governments and other stakeholders not made effective efforts to mainstream a gender perspective in policies and programs? Why has the portrayal of women in electronic, print, visual and audio media not changed?

The Beijing Platform underlines the importance of women's media and networks in promoting debate, disseminating information and facilitating the increased participation of women in communication. But have women's media networks been encouraged, including cultural forms of indigenous peoples?

We have more questions: Have there been advocacy efforts to monitor and work with media, gender-sensitive training for media professionals, media owners and managers? How much has women's participation in media increased since last decade?

Globally, the media shows little interest in women's issues and among what has been covered, most is rather negative and wrong. The media does not seem to have given adequate attention to important issues that concern youth and women's welfare. However, media also has been a source of misinformation, misperception, and negative ideas and attitudes about women's issues. A woman works alone and suffers alone, she finds no support either at home or at office.

Regarding women's issues the media has been at best elitist, and at worst sensationalist and irresponsible. Few women are given space as well in the news and informative features in print and electronic media. And even in the presentation of some women celebrities, more importance is given to their personal affairs than their capabilities and achievements.

Women in Asia especially are rarely associated with serious issues such as politics, conflict, unemployment or international geopolitics, and quotes from women experts are rare in news analysis and feature articles.

"Even women's participation in journalism, including electronic and print media, marked a rise in last couple of years but most of them give up the profession for various problems," said Puja Budhathoki.

There is also a lack of women's representation in agencies such as the Press Council, News Committee, Information Department and the Censor Board of Information and Communication. In some cases women are involved through the provision of reservation; their roles are limited. They do not have access to censorship for the sake of gender sensibility. They can hardly influence decision-making.

"Work environment needs to be egalitarian and encouraging. At present enthusiasm is often watered down by unresponsive organisations that are not sensitive to gender specific requirements which are often viewed as liabilities," Puja says.

Another common feature of media's presentation of women is their objectification of women as entertainment fixtures or sex symbols. The women movie artists are attacked with vulgar language and crude comments about their personal traits or physical appearance in the gossip columns. In addition, the right to privacy of a victim is not fully honored.

"Women's limited participation in media is considered a major obstacle to a positive and inspiring portrayal of women," media activist Monica said. "A woman has to take care of her profession after looking after her husband, children, their education, and in-laws. She has to manage so many things single handed."

She further said: "The media should give importance to such subject matters which inform the women of the socio-political context of the country with particular focus on women's issues, their contemporary problems and necessities. The media should inspire all to make opinions and decisions on development, human rights, women's rights and women's place in a society.

"Though media has yet to overcome its biases against women, whether as managers or characters of their programming, the changing attitudes of some authorities is an excellent opportunity for women's groups to persuade media to their cause".

Asmita feminist magazine argued: " Women's groups have to pay more attention to their relationship with media. They should ensure a continuous lobby for a gender-sensitive national media policy. They should also work toward clarifying to reporters, editors and other media practitioners, in terms of disposition and skill, the intricacies of incorporating a gender perspective into their work".

"Even the findings show that women's views and voices are grossly underrepresented in Asian media. The survey found no significant differences between private and public media on how men and women are treated as news sources. Voices of women in decision making are also underrepresented," PM E-magazine's reporter Amrit Pandey said.

Media can serve to disseminate information about women. They can improve knowledge and shape perceptions and attitudes about a variety of subjects, and they can influence women's issues and behavior. Ideally the media should provide accurate guidance about women's issues, reproductive health, and responsible sexual behavior, especially to young women, who are generally thought to be more susceptible than older adults to the influence of media.

Low school enrolment, early marriage, early entry into work and early entry into childbearing are the defining characteristics of many women and girls in Asia and in Africa. These characteristics, operating in circular rather than linear ways, together constitute a socio-economic challenge that warrants expeditious response and innovative strategies. So, at the implementation level, Media and Government should be focused on women's issues and work in a decentralized way.

Puja says; "although there is a policy of increasing women's participation in the sectors of education, health, forestry, law and agriculture to encourage women to participate in developmental affairs, most of the plans have remained silent about women's participation in the media sector".

"Globally, there are some policies such as the national policy on communications, Press and Publication Act, national-broadcasting by-laws, made but they are not implemented in true spirit," she argued.

"In Asia, most urban girls and women consider television to be an appropriate source for information on their rights, but males are less likely than females to hold this view. Relatively few seek information on sexual matters from television or radio. It is possible that few girls seek information on sexual matters from television or radio because those media have conventionally not offered such information. Media programs for girls should be designed with these findings in mind," she says..

"Women's access to media and their participation in them has been mainly through the mainstream and alternative means. By mainstream we mean the extensive use of mass communication media which have extensive coverage and influence among a large number of people. In this, we can include the media like press, radio, television, movies, video, and internet. The alternative media are those which women themselves have created or are trying to establish to fulfill their needs and necessities," Manju further said.

Vulgar, degrading and defamatory language and material should not occupy any place in the publication. The publication should be conscious while printing the news on violence and rape cases to ensure that no place is occupied by unnecessary stimulation, and no attempt is made to inflict additional torture upon the person suffering.

Sexy advertisements and wrong characterisation of women have to be stopped. Socio-cultural factors play an important role in advancing or hindering women's access to journalism. Discrimination against women works more subtly through the effects of sex-related beliefs and prejudices.

Women's participation should be encouraged in journalism to develop a clear media vision and strategy. It is essential that the transmission of news, articles, stories and other programmes should take into account the gender perspective. The media should also analyse the involvement of women in economic, social and cultural aspects and help improve the situation.

Representation in government, Parliament, municipal councils as well as laws pertaining to women are issues which should be addressed. There must be an open discussion as well as co-operation among institutions as well as the media to raise awareness of issues being discussed so as to achieve the needed legislative amendments to any laws.

"If you see in Asian media as there is no adequate representation and participation of women journalists in the print media. More and more women should be encouraged to join the profession even in decision making levels of the editorial section of the media," Puja said.

It is imperative that the media workers should have a positive attitude towards gender issues and the issues of women's liberation. Similarly, the trend of using women as the means of advertisement should be ceased. The presentation of women in the media in a manner which exploits them physically as well as mentally should be discouraged.

Media's role is not just to report to society but to challenge the society on things which have been wrong as well as to set agenda. The lack of women's voices and limited portrayal of their roles in the media may soon change if a new plan to correct those anomalies is implemented.


(Writer cum Journalist Kamala Sarup was born in Dharan, Nepal)

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