It is a fact that the media in Pakistan depicts the gender bias in our rigorously patriarchal society. The enormous influence the media has on constituting social change is also incontestable. However, it seems increasingly otiose to rely on the media to bring forth any change in this regard as long as Pakistan’s leading newspapers are still carrying jargon such as “lady” reporter. With the ratio of one in 20 female reporters in Pakistan, a fair and balanced gender representation in the media is absent. The significant misfortune is the lack of gender sensitive material currently being produced by the news media.
Gender stereotypes are common in the Pakistani media and continue to make it difficult for women to play an equal role in the country’s workforce. Amid these derogatory conditions, the launch of a recent International Labour Organisation (ILO) project came as a much needed breath of fresh air. It focuses on Pakistani journalists themselves, using media to reshape public opinions about working women. As a reporter for Pakistan Television, Nida Fatima Said sees many of the country’s most pressing social problems but, for her, one of the most difficult was also one of the most personal — gender equality.
She has argued, “Women in Pakistan in particular are portrayed by the media mainly in two major roles, either as sex objects or housewives.” She added, “The working woman, the labourer, the career girl, the high academic achiever, the productive citizen contributing greatly to the economy through her skills is under-rated, under-reported and hardly celebrated.” This undermines her identity as a labourer, skilled worker and a professional.
After almost a decade of reporting, Nida was getting tired of fighting the ‘invisible war’ for working women. She was frustrated that the dramatic expansion of Pakistan’s media sector in the last decade had done little to change attitudes towards women and work. The expansion of the media industry also caught the attention of Frida Khan, the National Project Coordinator of the ILO’s Promoting Gender Equality for Decent Employment (GE4DE) project, and the fact that so few journalists had received any formal training in reporting, let alone how to report in a gender responsive way. She saw a real opportunity to work with the media to improve the situation for working women in Pakistan.
Are women all babies and no briefcases? Frida’s aim was to change the way that reporting on women perpetuated a worldview where men carried the briefcases and women carried the babies, by sensitising journalists and editors themselves to not only incorporate women’s perspectives in their reporting but to consider a broader and more subtle range of issues that affect Pakistani women who are working or want to work.
In January 2012, with funding from the Canadian government, the ILO GE4DE project started running training programmes for Pakistani journalists to change the way the rapidly expanding media sector reported on working women, to help re-shape broader public opinion. The training was followed by a competition for the best stories on working women. This project was the largest media development project in terms of outreach to media practitioners in Pakistan’s history. Some 673 journalists from 41 districts in Pakistan were trained. The training included not only reporters but also sub-editors and news editors, to ensure that stories about working women were not just commissioned and written but actually published.
For Nida, who took part in the training, this inclusion of media-decision makers was a key element of the programme. “Whenever you try to do a story on women’s issues, the usual knee jerk response from everyone around you in this patriarchal world is very discouraging,” she recalled. “The first hurdle in bringing women’s issues to light is to fight against people who do not want them to come to the surface.”
In the competition that followed the training, Nida’s 20-minute documentary focused on the economic contribution of women, and followed two women in very different jobs, one in an urban factory and one on a rural farm, who share a common problem: even though they work as hard as men, their contributions are not valued equally.
The role of gender in good journalism is visible in both print and electronic media. Before the training started, the ILO commissioned research on media opinions and found that many journalists were not familiar with concepts of gender and work or the situation of working women. Aoun Sahi, from a popular daily, was one of them. “Initially I was reluctant to give serious thought to gender issues in Pakistan,” he said, “but when I learnt that less than one percent of the total female labour force works in decent conditions, it changed my perspective about gender and its role in good journalism.”
Aoun’s article on the importance of including women in labour inspections won first prize in the print media category. He said, “It does not make sense that 50 percent of the population, which consists of women, can simply be kept away from economic activity. They should work, especially at senior and influential positions, to encourage other women to bring an end to male dominance.”
As well as focusing on individual stories, Aoun’s feature also pointed towards a key longer-term trend: the negative effect that the under-representation of women in the media and in the workforce is having on Pakistan’s longer-term development. “Women have no contribution in most activities or decision making, and this can be seen as a major obstacle towards development in Pakistan. Their voices need to be heard without stereotyping,” he said, “I want working women to understand their strength and not to sit back and let men decide their fate.”
The ILO’s Regional Director for Asia and the Pacific, Mr Yoshiteru Uramoto, said, “The approach taken by the GE4DE project is part of a wider ILO strategy to start tackling long-standing challenges in the world of work, such as gender inequality, with new tools, such as the power and influence that the media commands.” Through the training programme, ILO has endeavoured to improve the coverage of working women, bringing about a nuanced and sensitive portrayal of women in the world of work. As part of this programme, a multimedia training module and a guidebook for journalists was developed to facilitate improved understanding of concepts around issues lying at the interface of labour and gender.
The image of women portrayed in the media seems to have improved over the years. The ILO media awards on highlighting gender issues in print and online media are encouraging factors in the promotion of women’s issues in Pakistan. If such initiatives are carried on then one day we will be successful in getting rid of discrimination and prejudices through a vibrant media.