Small-town newsrooms fail to provide equal space to women
Women journalists in rural areas fight to be recognised as professionals, face discrimination in terms of salary, beats.Updated: Nov 09, 2019, 09:35 IST
Akanksha Shukla, 24, was travelling back to her hometown inUttar Pradesh’sMahoba district with her spouse on August 14 when she witnessed an accident. “She immediately called me up and told me about it. Then she spoke to the station houseofficer of the local police station and informed them. She also took a video and sent it to me over WhatsApp,” said Irfan Pathan, a journalist based in Mahoba who runs a local channel on YouTube called UP Star News, and in which Shukla worked until she got married seven months ago and moved to Jhansi. “Kahin bhi shuru ho jayegi (She’ll do her work no matter where she is).”
Initially, Pathan was hesitant about hiring Shukla.
“People say all kinds of things, and especially in a small town like ours, where everyone is involved in everyone’s business, it becomes difficult for women. She approached many journalists for work. Everyone refused. I told her that I didn’t want to hire women journalists. I tried to explain to her how the field was not good for women, especially in small towns,” Pathan recalled.
Pathan eventually employed Shukla in 2014, first as an anchor and then as a reporter. “I don’t think there was any other woman reporting in Mahoba at that time,” he said. UP Star News began five years ago, and till last year, was also available on the local cable. It is now available only on YouTube.
Shukla was in her first year of college when she joined UP Star News. She said that she faced a lot of resistance from her community — she belongs to the socially and culturally dominant Brahmin caste — when she took up the job.
“There were some journalists from my community who didn’t want me to work in an organisation run by a Muslim. Also, I was very well known in Mahoba, they didn’t want a girl to get ahead. They would grab my hand, pass comments.” Shukla eventually filed a case against some of them — the matter is pending in court. “It’s very challenging to be a woman journalist, to match your step with other male journalists. There are a lot of insults that you have to withstand. People will say a lot of things to your face, in front of others. But I kept on with my work.”
In 2014, when Khabar Lahariya was a newspaper with six print editions, 40 journalists, and a readership of 80,000, it conducted a survey on women journalists working in small towns in north India. Khabar Lahariya itself was a rural newspaper that began in 2002, and was run solely by women from disadvantaged and marginalised backgrounds. Setting the context, the survey stated, “Women journalists face discrimination in terms of salaries, the beats that they can cover and the promotions they get. Of 43 countries studied in a Unesco report on the subject, women’s participation in media was seen to be less than 50% in all the countries, with the exception of Estonia and Lithuania. Whereas the international data shows a participation of 33.3% of women in news media, in India the situation is more disappointing: here only 25% of the journalists in media organisations were women.”
“Women are kept away from serious and high risk reporting, for instance, the coverage of riots, and not allotted night shifts. More opportunities are provided to women in soft beats or features. While more women were to be seen as news anchors, in the context of political reporting, or at the time of elections, for instance, it was male reporters that were seen and heard airing their opinions.”
The report then went on to detail the experiences of 20 women journalists from Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Bihar and Rajasthan, to showcase the challenges they faced, as well as the ways in which they negotiated being journalists in small-town or rural India. Several aspects that the report titled Zile ki Hulchul: Conversations with Women Journalists in Small Town India resonate with Shukla’s experiences, including the harassment she was subjected to during her work, the lack of a redressal mechanism, the general attitude of co-workers as well as the difficulty of being taken seriously as a professional journalist.
It was for this reason that Kavita Naruka, 32, from Jaipur, in 2015 started Focus Bharat, an eight-page monthly broadsheet that, as she put it, “doesn’t focus on daily news, but analysis”. When she started out 10 years ago, after acquiring a degree in mass communications from the University of Jaipur, she was asked to do “Page 3 stories”, but her heart, she said, was set on doing “investigative journalism”. She recounts doing stories on crumbling infrastructure of government schools, on the availability of spurious alcohol, and also on the sleeper cells after the 2008 Jaipur bomb blasts for regional news channels like First India and Time TV.
There weren’t too many women in the newsroom, she said, which drove her to hire an equal number of men and women in Focus Bharat. During the recent state elections in Rajasthan, Focus Bharat ran a campaign on increasing the number of women candidates across parties. “We contacted journalists in all the districts and asked them for recommendations of women who are doing damdar (strong) grassroots work for the community. We felicitated 200 women, out of them 48 got a ticket, and 12 won the election across different parties.”
Mukul Srivastava has been teaching journalism students for the past 20 years. Currently the head of the journalism and mass communications department in Lucknow University, he said that the number of women students far exceeds the number of men students. “In terms of ratio, I’d say, 80% girls.” But, he added, “In Hindi media organisations, barely 5% stick with their job.” Part of the problem, he said, lay in the social mindset. “The girls are simply not prepared for the sort of patriarchal resistance they face in the newsrooms. Very few newsrooms have maternal leave policy, for instance. There are hardly any women editors. Then families: so many of them don’t want their daughters working late at night.”
“Only those women who are either very daring or marry late, stay on as journalists.”