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When Will We See Dalit Women Journalists In India’s Mainstream Media?

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Woman journalist
When we talk about journalism, women appear in very limited programs as the experts or hosts. Credits: The Coalition for Women In Journalism

Media these days is not only about gathering and dissemination of information, but it shapes public opinion and greater discourse that affect the policy-making process in a democracy. Media plays a unique role in shaping the society at large directly or indirectly. Media, however, continue to reproduce discriminatory stereotypes about women and portray them in sexist ways.

When we talk about journalism, women appear in very limited programs as the experts or hosts. One of the reasons for this situation is the smaller number of women in these spheres, but even the existing number of women are underrepresented compared to their male counterparts. There is a huge pay gap that exists in the industry. More women are involved in careers in the communications sector, but few have attained positions at the decision-making level or serve on governing boards and bodies that influence media policy.

The main reason for this under-representation of women is that men occupy positions of importance in media organization and produce content to be consumed by men. Even when women occupy importnat positions in an organization, majority of them come from upper class and upper caste. There are fewer women who come from the marginalized section. Therefore, the narrative that prevails in society and shapes the perception of people comes from a very privileged position. This often results in limitation of information from different marginalized communities to the society at large.

A report published by OxfamWho Tells Our Stories Matters spanning TV news (Hindi and English), newspaper (Hindi and English), digital media and magazines brings forth startling data that demonstrates the severe under-representation of marginalized groups in the Indian Media. Reliable data is not available to establish the number of Dalit/Adivasi journalists in media; experts say, it is minuscule. Media critics say coverage on issues of caste, gender and class lacks sensitivity because of the absence of journalists from these sections. There is no data available specifically for the number of women in media from marginalized communities.

Lack Of People From Dalit Communities In The Newsroom

The report from Oxfam India says, out of the 121 newsrooms, leadership positions – editor-in-chief, managing editor, executive editor, bureau chief, input/output editor – across newspapers, TV news channels, news websites, and magazines under study, 106 are occupied by upper castes, five by other backward classes and six by people from minority communities. The case of four individuals could not be identified.

In the present scenario, since these stories come out from a privilege point of view, there exists a lack of perspective from the marginalized communities which refutes the idea that media should depict diversified content from different perspectives. Even stories written on those women affected by discrimination are by people who are in a privileged position and are from the upper caste. It then becomes an echo chamber of the voices of the privileged or a majoritarian perspective, adding to fuel to the popular discourse while the minorities’ voices are disbanded.

Media, in a democracy, works on social contact which is nothing but the social and cultural capital acquired by the upper caste over the years. They give jobs, awards and scholarships to people from their own caste, and sometimes there exists patterns of generational journalists working in the same area. On the other hand, Dalit women do not have enough social capital in the field of media. As a result, their struggle to gain spaces becomes more difficult. The marginalized groups are therefore absent in news media, particularly in leadership roles which determine who gets to occupy these spaces.

Tokenism In India

Post the Rohit Vemula episode, India has witnessed the Third Ambedkarite Wave, wherein there has been an increasing trend of discussion about discrimination faced by the marginalized community. Media houses started hiring or outsourcing Dalit women journalists to only talk about ‘Dalit and gender issues’, thereby reducing their identity to their caste by making them a ‘quota reporter’ and not a journalist who should be allowed to write about Politics, Culture, Art and Sports.

Now, these upper caste media houses want the voices of Dalit, but they still have a stern brahmanical control on the topics that the Dalit should write about. The Dalit journalists are typecast to produce Dalit-oriented content. For instance, the Adivasi journalists are asked to cover issues regarding Naxalites, Forests and Left Wing extremism.

The biggest problem with reportage of news that comes from journalists from marginalized communities is that they never get to become a part of mainstream media. Their work is less known. They do not get a platform for exposure of their ground reporting. Organisations like Velvida that specifically talk about Dali-Bahujan remain almost invisible in the mainstream media.

As a democracy, we should be aiming to move towards an egalitarian society by making collective efforts, but then the burden of labor falls on Dalit. The question to ask here is, why should the labor to establish an anti-caste society come from those who have faced the brunt of casteist society for years?

No Counter Narrative

“Two Dalits are killed every 24 hours. Two Dalit houses are burnt down. There would be no dearth of breaking news or good TRP ratings. In an era where violence incites more sensationalism than a porn video, commercialising Dalit atrocities will only be beneficial. As long as the six lakh villages in India are segregated as oors (where the dominant castes live) and cheris (where the Dalits live), as long as the hands of dominant castes write and enforce the living laws for Dalits through khap panchayats, there would be no scarcity of news related to violence against Dalits.” says Jeya Rani.

Under-representation of marginalized communities, especially women, leads to a lack of counter narratives in the media, which strives on populism. Whenever news regarding Dalit community is published, it is mostly negative and involves stories of heinous crimes committed against Dalit.

There are no narratives celebrating the intellectual discourses and movements to counter caste-based biases started by Dalit. The privileged gaze fails to see the resistance. No narratives celebrate their culture and identity. For example, Annual Tribal Festival and Dhamma Pravartan Divas, which are significant in Dalit culture, remain uncovered by the media.

When there were anti-reservation protests being organized in the country, there was a lack of counter narratives to the harms that come out of such an anti-reservation movement. These discourses affect law-making in a democracy, which may go against the rights of the marginalized communities.

Lack of Gender And Caste Sensitive Content

a group of women, holding their hands together, walking towards the sea
It is much more difficult for women from marginalized communities to enter into the field of media and journalism.

The kind of content mainstream media produces is castiest, classist and extremely sexist in nature. While reading reportage on sexual assault against women, it is observed that media provides graphic and gruesome details of the victim, specially while covering rape cases, and fewer details about the perpetrator. The media sensationalizes these issues by providing complete details of crime in order to increase their audience, thereby compromising the dignity of the victim who may not consent to share the details, and hence, capitalizing on the same.

The reportage of media on crime against Dalit women is less because of the inherent problem of caste system due to which the newsrooms are upper caste/class, male-dominated individuals. It is as if Dalit issues are not important enough.

Structural Problem

Caste is an ancient system of hierarchical segregation of people determined by birth. It is based on notions of purity and pollution, and rooted in the Hindu doctrine. The marginalized communities have been discriminated and oppressed for so long that they lack economic, social and cultural capital as compared to the upper caste. The entry to media schools, which are mostly private, becomes inaccessible due to large amount of fees that ranges from 3 lakhs–20 lakhs approximately. As most Dalit families are poor, they have no resources whatsoever to spend on education of girls. Therefore, they lack training and professional knowledge, which is a prerequisite to join the field.

Even in schools and colleges, there is no subject integrated in the curriculum that specifically talks about caste, class and gender to sensitize people regarding the inequality in the society. In such aspects, reservation in private media schools is a dire need to ensure participation of marginalized groups in mainstream media.

Language And Technical Knowledge As A Barrier

“Language was a means of power and control. For language is what reflects and embodies the culture and way of life of people, and to believe that one’s language is inferior, not good enough, not worthy of use is, in fact, to negate and make invisible one’s entire way of being and living. It is precisely through creating feelings of inferiority around local languages and dialects that the powerful maintained the marginalization of subaltern groups”, says a journalist from Khabar Lahriya, a path-breaking media channel comprising Dalit women journalists which primarily publishes local stories.

There is a hierarchy in terms of languages that originates from the set social hierarchy. English is considered elite, and local dialects follow beneath it. If we look at this problem from the grassroot level, we will realize that language acts as a major barrier to people who come from marginalized communities. Even if they are able to go to a media institution, they are likely to face problem in speaking and writing in the English language, which has become a need in today’s time. They are well versed in their own regional dialect and less fluent in English.

Media is a very diverse field, and it is imperative to have technical knowledge like handling a camera, working on computer, editing, etc. Due to class differences, Dalits find it hard to have resources for required training in these subjects. Then, it becomes quite difficult to survive in these very competitive media organization or institutes.

This stream requires women to step out of the home at uneven times and work for long hours, which is usually not acceptable to parents.

Patriarchy

“In spite of the growth in technology, newsrooms are still inaccessible to women. It is due to the patriarchal and casteist nature of media along with lower pay grades for women journalists. The media structure functions on networking and jacks, therefore limiting merit-based selections. Media also alienates women by under-representing their stories, especially of rural women, thereby creating further invisibility of women issues”, says Dr Shubdha Chaudhary, journalist at Al-jazeera.

It is much more difficult for women from marginalized communities to enter into the field of media and journalism. Families do not have enough resources to educate them. They also do not consider this as a viable career option. This stream requires women to step out of the home at uneven times and work for long hours, which is usually not acceptable to parents. Women are expected to get married and engage in house work.

The systematic structure of patriarchy is so staunch that women do not even consider being a media person as something remotely plausible. According to a report by Media Rumble and UN women, office spaces are male-dominated and patriarchal in nature. The study also found that women continue to be given what are essentially “soft” beats like lifestyle and fashion, leaving the “hard” beats like politics, economy, and sports. “By thus marginalising women’s voices and perspectives, the Indian media essentially denies nearly a half of the population a chance to influence public opinion. This runs counter to the principles of fairness, equality, and democracy,” the report said.

Need Of the Hour

  • Women should be given higher positions of decision-making in an organization. They should also be provided professional training to improve their way of working. Otherwise, when women occupy higher positions, they are likely to produce stereotypical images of women due to years of indoctrination.
  • Gender sensitivity training should be provided to employees of an organization to sensitize employees to try and be more inclusive.
  • Organizations and media schools should have a reservation system wherein there are seats reserved for women who come from marginalized communities. More inclusive policies guarantee representation and diversity.
  • To strengthen cooperation between public authorities and media to achieve social equality between women and men.
  • To raise gender-related issues through respective medium.
  • To have discussions and debate in the public discourse regarding limited representation of marginalized community

For democracy to thrive, journalism must thrive and diversity must be robust. There is an urgent need to take proactive steps, including affirmative action, to diversify newsrooms in line with country’s social and demographic character. To this end, systems to encourage inclusion must be put in place and concerted efforts made to train and hire journalists from across the social spectrum.

Give the spaces to those who have been devoid of it, only then the real voice of reason come into the mainstream media.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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