GREETINGS FROM VEENA SIKRI, FOUNDING TRUSTEE AND CONVENER, SOUTH ASIA WOMEN’S NETWORK (SWAN)
The last two years have been among the most difficult that each of us has known, individually, for our respective nations, and for the region of South Asia as a whole. The Coronavirus pandemic unleashed across the world from its origins in late 2019, has wrought havoc with national economies, individual jobs and social well-being. The loss of lives has been horrendously tragic, and the repeated lock-downs have come with their own sense of deep trauma. The women and children of South Asia (and women and children all over the world) have suffered immeasurably more than any other socio-economic group, in terms of further decline in their labour force participation rates, worsening health and malnutrition indicators, and sharp rise in the incidence of gender-based violence. SWAN conveys its deep sympathy and support to all those adversely affected by the pandemic.
During most of 2020 and all of 2021, SWAN colleagues kept in touch through emails, WhatsApp and Zoom calls, since off-line meetings were not possible. In 2022, hoping that the pandemic has ebbed enough to resume full activity, SWAN is gearing up to carry on from where we left off in 2020.
Our last off-line activity was in March 2020. SWAN’s flagship project “Women for Change : Building a Gendered Media in South Asia”, achieved definitive success after more than five years of coordinated, collective research by participating institutions and individuals from nine countries of South Asia. In March 2020, on the eve of Women’s Day and just a few days before the first lockdown came into force, SWAN’s two-volume Report on the Status of Women in Media in South Asia, was released in New Delhi by Hon’ble Smt Smriti Zubin Irani, Union Minister for Women and Child Development.
SWAN’s two-volume Report encapsulates specific outcomes of the seminal research, conducted in tandem in all nine countries, covering the sectors of news media, advertising, entertainment media including films, journalism and mass communication curricula, and existing gender-related legislations and policy mechanisms in nine countries. The media is an important partner in the promotion of gender equality as well as in removing negative gender stereotypes embedded in individual and community mindsets. The media has a critical role as a reflection of society and an agent of change, through media freedom with responsibility. If sufficiently empowered, women in media can themselves be the change they want to see. The need to deter, counter and overcome gender-based violence (GBV) and sexual harassment is a cross-cutting priority in this project, as an issue that adversely impacts every aspect of women’s work in media and society. Volume I analyses research outcomes in each sector, and Volume II contains the detailed Country Research Reports prepared by each of the nine participating countries. Both volumes are accessible on this web-site.
The research outcomes are dismal, and strikingly similar across all nine countries, as reflected in the individual Country Research Reports. Women working in media do not have wage parity, nor are they adequately represented at decision-making levels in management. With few exceptions, women in media face a gender insensitive environment at the workplace, including discrimination, security threats and violence. There is sharp gender inequality in media coverage about women, with high focus on sexual crimes and harassment in the news media content relating to women. Most often, women are stereotyped, belittled and sexually objectified in the news, entertainment and commercial space. The patriarchal mind-set that is still prevalent in the tradition-bound societies of South Asia, is reflected in the media discourse and coverage about women in these countries.
The portrayal of women in advertising and entertainment media was found to be retrograde, projecting women in a stereotypical manner, either in ‘essentialist’ roles, as passive, subordinate to men, low in intellect and social hierarchy, or as objects of desire. Women across brand categories are stereotyped in advertising. In life style brand categories, they are usually sexually objectified. Despite censorship in some of the nine countries, and laws and codes of professional ethics in others, the menace continues unabated. Advertising per se has failed to recognize the social shift and the changing role of women in society. Some brands attempt to present modern women who are empowered, but deep analysis reflects reinforcement of old stereotypes and building of new ones.
The course curricula in journalism and mass communication faculties/ institutes in most countries in the region, with the exception of Bangladesh, are not inclusive and gender-sensitive. In India, more than 300 universities teach mass communication, but less than 10% of these had any module or course on gender. In Bangladesh, almost 75% such mass communication courses had gender as an important component, an example others in the region need to emulate. Across South Asia, a growing number of women join mass communication faculties to pursue a career in journalism and media. However, within a few years, they are forced to quit their jobs, for reasons that include the gender insensitive environment within the media industry, and familial responsibilities, despite their desire of fulfilling their professional ambitions and contributing to the family income.
India is among the very few countries in the region to have a number of laws concerning women, including a law on ensuring maternity leave for working women, a law against the sexual harassment of women at the work place, and on setting up complaints committees within each organization. Other countries also have policies and regulations in place, but the implementation per se in all the countries in the region is lax. Serious efforts are necessary to overcome poor implementation and the general lack of effective legal frameworks and policies that optimally addresses issues related to gender and women within the South Asian media.
Based on the research outcomes and policy recommendations encapsulated in Volumes I and II of their Report on the Status of Women in Media in South Asia, SWAN is now preparing to launch the second phase of this project. In the second phase, the nine participating countries seek to identify meaningful and effective mechanisms that can ensure a gender sensitive media with equal, non-discriminatory rights, protection against sexual harassment and gender based violence at the workplace, combined with respect for women in portrayal, both in media content and advertising. The mechanisms can include formal legislation, guidelines, codes of conduct and ethics, regulatory bodies and self-regulatory mechanisms. In Phase II, SWAN seeks to bring together all stakeholders in the public and private sectors in order to agree upon meaningful and effective mechanisms, as well as the necessary legal and policy frameworks for women in media. India has proposed a Multimedia Tool Kit that will serve as a gender sensitivity barometer for the media.
Stronger initiatives by Governments are vital, in partnership with all stakeholders, public and private, to agree on the most effective mix of mechanisms, to rigorously implement existing legal frameworks or update outdated policies. Editors and owners should come on board to accept the seriousness of ensuring a gender-sensitive media, and to pledge their cooperation in working towards agreed goals, whether on halting discriminatory and gender-biased practices by media organizations, on ending gender based violence, or on addressing the objectification of women through advertising campaigns. Women media professionals must be assured a healthy, non-discriminatory work environment with equal opportunity.
In 2022, SWAN proposes to carry forward the work successfully initiated through the Inception Workshop for the Rural Tourism based Social Enterprise Project for Sustainable Development and Gender Empowerment in South Asia, held in New Delhi and Jaripani (Uttarakhand) in November 2019. Tourism is a natural avenue for revenue generation across South Asia. It is also the most instinctive and successful way to bring the peoples of South Asia closer to each other. Ecotourism is environmentally responsible tourism. It inculcates respect for different cultures and sub-cultures, and is essential for sustainable development of regions and people. SWAN emphasises the vital role of ecotourism (focussed on rural areas) for integrating women into the process of sustainable development. Women play a central role in rural communities in agriculture, crafts and textiles, waste management, arts and music, cuisine and hospitality, preservation of the environment and culture, and inculcating traditional values in the next generation. All these are core values for the development of ecotourism. By making local communities stake-holders and the principal beneficiaries in ecotourism projects, the aspect of gender empowerment for the women in these communities receives the highest priority. Eco-tourism becomes the vehicle for skills, livelihood and sustainable development for the women of South Asia. SWAN colleagues are together formulating a three-year project bringing together teams from identified rural tourism development sites in each country, using our own e-portal first for e-training, and subsequently for e-marketing and e-commerce.
Two critical issues that impact gender empowerment, and through this, challenge the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), are first, South Asia’s Malnutrition Challenge, and second, Women’s Unpaid Work. South Asia is the worst affected region in the world where the prevalence of stunting and wasting among children is the highest and so is the number of severely food-insecure people. Women’s poor nutritional status not only affects their own health, but also has long term inter-generational effects on nutritional and health status of children and their development and productivity. As a natural corollary, women should play a central role in the solution-seeking and solution-implementation process, bringing to bear their traditional knowledge of health-sustaining and nutrition-building processes strongly based on locally-available inputs, combined with the relevant aspects of modern science. South Asia needs a new focus, new partnerships and innovative methodology in order to face up to the challenge of meeting the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) of “no hunger and malnutrition” by 2030. Increasingly, it is being realized that achieving SDG 5 (Gender Equality) will be impossible if the goals to eradicate hunger and malnutrition are not met.
Women’s unpaid work essentially covers that work which does not receive direct remuneration, and as a result, is not counted in national income accounts and is therefore invisible in national data systems. Women’s unpaid work includes unpaid care for one’s own children, and for the old, sick and disabled members of the family; unpaid household chores, such as cooking, cleaning, washing, and shopping for the family; as well as, in rural areas, collecting fuel, firewood and fetching water for the family. The burden of such unpaid services falls disproportionately on women. It is estimated that as much as 80 per cent of such unpaid work is done by women. As a result, women have a significantly lower (and falling) labour force participation rate, lower wages, lower self-esteem, and poorer health. It is vital to recognize this problem, reduce the burden of unpaid women’s work, and redistribute the burden among all members of the family.
The South Asia Women’s Network (SWAN) thanks all those who have so generously supported our activities, and requests their continued support as we go ahead. SWAN thanks each of our members and participating institutions for the strength of their vision, for their support to the ideals that SWAN represents, and for the continuity of their caring and sharing presence as SWAN continues its journey.
Professor & Ambassador
Founding Trustee and Convener,
South Asia Women’s Network (SWAN)
South Asia Foundation-India