Indian women are almost completely locked out of the highest levels of political and news editorial power, with the result that women’s struggles and perspectives are excluded from public discourse, writes Luba Kassova.
As we observe World Human Rights Day today (10th December), I wonder what role news media plays in addressing violence against women. Does the news cover the problem adequately? Are journalists able to report on these issues without themselves falling prey to them? The answers to these questions are contained in my newly released report, which focuses on six countries that are home to a quarter of the world’s population - India, Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa, the UK and the US.
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Following one of our recently concluded campaigns against Gender-Based Violence, now I feel compelled to turn my attention to India.
What I have learned through researching India for my report in the last few years is that India is a country of huge contrasts. It was Air India that flew the world’s first all-women crew around the world in 2021, while a documentary on Khabar Lahariya, the successful all-women Indian news operation, was Oscar-nominated the same year. It was India that introduced a landmark agreement to protect garment workers from violence, following the 2021 murder of Dalit woman Gyasri Kathiravel. At the same time, India is a country where a woman was tied to a tree and thrashed by her husband for seven hours; and another was assaulted and abused by men and women in Delhi, accused of causing a man’s suicide by rejecting his advances. Only last month a federal minister caused controversy by blaming a victim of femicide for her own death for having had a live-in relationship with the man who killed her.
Women in India face enormous structural and cultural barriers which place them at a disadvantage. First and foremost, there is a substantive gap between women’s and men’s safety. Ranked 148th of 170 on the 2021 Women, Peace and Security Index, India is among the world’s most dangerous countries for women. According to WHO research, in 2022, 18% of women in India reported having endured intimate partner violence.
Indian women are almost completely locked out of the highest levels of political and news editorial power, with the result that women’s struggles and perspectives are excluded from public discourse. In 2019 women occupied 23 percent of ministerial positions, but in 2021 their proportion had collapsed to 9% of all ministerial roles. From Outrage to Opportunity uncovered that 1 in 10 editors-in-chief in India are women (11% in national outlets and 8 percent in regional), a proportion notably lower than the average of 26% across the other studied countries. Only 1 in 5 top editors in politics are women (34% in national news media vs. 0% in regional). In addition, Indian women face a huge pay gap with women’s median gross hourly salary 19% less than men’s in 2018. At the current rate, it will take 318 years for Indian women’s share of labor income to equal that of men.
These structural disparities are underpinned by powerful pro-male social norms, which are hardly reported in the news media. For example, according to UN Women data, the pay gap is barely challenged with 83% of men and 77% of women agreeing that “it is natural for men to earn more than women as they should be the main providers”. The vast majority of Indian men and women (between 85% and -88%) believe that the media portrays men and women in stereotypical roles with women seen as side-kicks and caregivers to men’s bread-winners and power agents. News media acts as a mirror for society – and it is reinforcing, rather than challenging, pro-male social norms.
One of the roles of news media, which journalists across cultures embrace, is to give voice to all members of the public whose stories need to be told. But are global and Indian news media doing so? Our research found that women’s voices are increasingly marginalized in news coverage in India, more so than in the other researched countries. For every woman featuring in the news there are six men muting her voice (vs. a global average ratio of 1 to 3).
AKAS analysis of GDELT’s database of 900 million online news stories revealed that a pitiful 0.02% of global news coverage addresses seven structural gender gaps: in pay, power, safety, health, confidence, authority and ageism. Analysis of news related to violence against women (including gender-based or domestic violence, honour killings, intimate partner violence, rape or sexual assault) shows a meagre 0.9% of Indian news covers these issues, a lower proportion than in any of the other researched countries. Moreover, while gender-based violence increased during the pandemic, coverage of these issues dropped significantly in India from its 1.7% pre-pandemic level.
Research has found that most women journalists experience some form of online or offline violence which constrains their ability to do their jobs. One needn’t look further than the sustained attacks against Rana Ayyub to understand the depth of the problem. As a senior female editor interviewed for the report reflected: “…A man would have never been subjected to the level of misogyny and trolling that she is.” Women journalists have felt even more vulnerable after ‘auction’ apps intensified organized abuse against them in India.
While news media globally or in India cannot solve the issues of women’s marginalization or social disadvantage alone, it has a duty to continuously bring the facts to the fore. It is the news media’s role to salvage women’s buried perspectives from the ruins and expose them to the light of truth. From Outrage to Opportunity offers a multitude of solutions for how the news industry can do that, including increasing coverage of the gender safety gap and tracking how women are portrayed in news. The opportunity for news media to continuously expose women’s truths was best articulated by a senior editor interviewed anonymously for the report: “The fact that it is harder for women to do the same jobs that men get to do - whether it’s journalism or outside of that –is a reality that needs to be confronted, and... addressed by governments, by all stakeholders, by organizations, because very often, it’s a blind eye that’s turned... It’ll be the headline for one day and then it’s forgotten”.
— Luba Kassova is a co-founder and director of the international audience strategy consultancy- AKAS, and is passionate about gender and racial equality, free media, and social cohesion. The views expressed are personal.
(Edited by : CH Unnikrishnan)
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