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Inferior And Domesticised: Has Mass Media Failed In Its Portrayal Of Women?

ReimagineTogether logoEditor’s Note: This article is a part of #ReimagineTogether, a campaign by Youth Ki Awaaz in collaboration with UNICEF India, YuWaah and Generation Unlimited, to spark conversations to create a new norm and better world order in the post-pandemic future. How have you and those around you coped with the pandemic? Join the conversation by telling us your COVID story and together, let's reimagine a safer, better and more equal future for all!

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The century-long movement of women’s rights and empowerment has achieved another level after the rise of new media in the eve of globalization. The portrayal of women in media has changed over time and has had both positive and negative impact on the image and position of women. Some mediums such as documentaries, radio, political and social content on TV, print news, digital platforms, etc. have played an essential role in ensuring a healthy public discourse on gender, dissemination of information, positive stories of women empowerment, reporting on achievements and progress of women in society.

They inform and educate society on the issues of gender and gender sensitization. Ad content and portrayal of women in cinema are also changing by giving women lead roles, positive depiction of women, and breaking gender stereotypes. Positive stereotypes help women to become assertive, independent, and tackle gender abuse and discrimination. More brands and production houses utilize successful, career-oriented women roles, and they are mostly shown as strong and independent persons, instead of being vilified.

However, they have a long way to go. Negative stereotypes of women in media such as submissive, timid, and ultra-modern women portrayals influence how women are perceived by society. It prevents women’s abilities by limiting their choices and opportunities, which directly and indirectly causes an increase in gender and sexual violence.

Women are given continuously decorative roles or as domestic caregivers of family, reinforcing the gender dynamics in the family system. Representational image.

Media’s Failure In Covering Essential Feminist Discourses And Intersections

Nowadays, issues related to women are not discussed in media widely. Only sensational news about women is given extensive coverage, while essential discourses and discussions on women related issues never occur. According to a survey by ‘Media Cloud,’ rape receives maximum media coverage. Other social issues related to women are largely ignored. The media does not offer any serious analysis of economic conditions and inter-relationships of social issues.

Rape, dowry deaths, and other serious violence against women are framed as criminal occurrences rather than the outcomes of genital mutilation and inequality. Also, rape, child marriages, domestic violence are covered by the media if they are high-profile and involve statements from politicians or elite class personalities. Feature movies and television soap operas, still portray women in stereotypical roles as inferior, subordinate, and submissive gender. It is justified by the producers as the demand of the masses.

Women’s Glorified, Domesticised, Objectified And Sexist Portrayal

Nevertheless, these depictions influence how women are perceived and treated in society. Women are also given continuously decorative roles or as domestic caregivers of family, reinforcing the gender dynamics in the family system. These electronic media, including news channels, can play a crucial role in the reconstruction of women’s image, shaping gender norms, socio-cultural values, and perceptions. However, mostly sensational news such as rape and violence against women is given the spotlight, While more severe women issues are not taken up.

Sexual objectification and commodification of women are prevalent in movies and advertisements.

Advertisements depict their version of women’s perfection – slim, fair complexioned, glamorous, which sets a bad precedent among adolescents and young women. Advertisements, especially for home, kitchen, jewellery, sanitation, and hygiene products, mirror the gendered view of society. Those ads depict women mostly as home-makers, concerned only with maintaining their houses, beauty, and taking care of their families.

Frontliners of women’s movements in India have been instrumental in highlighting the sexist attitude in advertisements. Though there have been some changes in the way corporates and product companies depict women, the tendency has always been towards reinforcing traditional regressive gender roles. The fashion and cosmetics industry also plays a negative role in the gender discrimination of women.

It is only women who are expected to maintain impossible standards of physical perfection and body shape. Objectification of women’s bodies is subtly promoted by beauty pageants and the fashion industry that curtails women’s equality. Women are treated as trophies, celebrated for how they look, instead of intelligence, skill, character, and their contribution. There have been women’s rights movements in the US and around the world against beauty pageants and the stereotypes they reinforce.

How Social Media Has Made Women Vulnerable To Abuse

The advent of the internet and social media platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter, etc. has broadened the social space for women to raise their issues, reach out, network and collaborate for their common causes. Women blogging, NGO websites, and women platforms have advanced the empowerment of women through technology. There is also a gender digital divide creating unequal spaces in digital media. Some of the reasons for this gender gap are lack of textual literacy, the wage gap, lack of context in local languages, gender division of labour causing time constraints for women, etc.

According to Women’s Rights Online Network, women are 50% less likely to access the internet than men. At the same time, the same platforms reinforce gendered online behaviours and sex-role stereotypes. Women who voice strong opinions on women’s issues are exposed to verbal abuses and threats of violence. Social media also tends to create negative body image and low self-esteem by emphasizing obsessive celebrity culture, physical perfection, and beauty.

Representational image.

According to the UN’s Broadband Commission for Digital Development, 73% of women have already experienced cyber violence. Women receive rape, death threats, and gendered abuses for expressing their opinions online. As per a survey by UN Women, in India, 28% of women who faced online abuse reduced their online presence and stopped posting on specific issues. These gendered online abuses effectively silence women’s voices and discourses around women’s issues. Cyber-crime against women is also on the rise. Stalking women online, sending unsolicited and persistent messages through WhatsApp and e-mails, developing pornographic content, and morphed photos to target women are some of how women are harassed on social media.

What is more, women do not know where to report such issues and how to deal with them. Women subjected to such cyber crimes and problems are vulnerable to mental health issues such as emotional stress, depression, and hypertension, further affecting their lives. Trolling on social media of women who defy sexism and gender bias is another dangerous trend that has to be taken note of. Trolls are abusers who push defamatory, personally abusive content targeting individuals.

Women, especially those who voice non-mainstream and anti-modernization views, are trolled exceptionally on social platforms. The e-mail spoofing would be cause substantial monetary loss. Regular phishing, the attempt to gain sensitive information such as a username and password and intent to obtain personal information, becomes a major threat for women in the digital world.
Then what is the solution, how can we create a secure, inclusive, and gender unbiased media!

This is not just covering ‘women’s issues.’ It is about to ensure content is balanced across gender lines and respects the diversity that represents nearly 50% of the world’s population. We have to make sure more women occupy managerial roles in the newsroom and higher positions in the field of print journalism, television, web channels, and publications. There should be an equal pay scale for female media workers and development programs to increase their skills and leadership abilities.

Despite laws and regulations, practical actions against perpetrators are not taken. As per NCRB data, around 27,000 cybercrime incidents registered in 2018; however, the investigation is pending for the same amount of crimes that were reported in the previous year. So, the state should ensure the enforcement of laws to prevent stalkings, cybercrimes, and other online abuses in priority. At last, it is not impossible for men to effectively cover gender issues; on the other hand, he must be aware and prone to women’s needs and perspectives.

Featured image is for representational purposes only.

Omm Priyadarshi is a Development Studies Scholar from NIT Rourkela. He typically writes on Socio-cultural, Policy & Gender-related issues. He tweets on @iommpriyadarshi.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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)’.

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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.”

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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
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Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
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