The Covid pandemic is a gendered crisis but the media is ignoring that

Updated 23 Apr, 2021 11:41am

An Uks report and panel discussion makes horrifying revelations about gender-based violence during the pandemic.

Photo: Reuters
Photo: Reuters

Only eight of 4,056 news reports on gender-based violence were aired by Pakistan's prime time media in March 2020, which further fell to four in April 2020, a study found. This belies a greater problem in the media and how it represented women during the pandemic.

The Uks Research Centre — an institute in Islamabad that conducts studies and publishes reports on gender equality and women development — in association with the Centre for Women's Global Leadership at Rutgers University, USA held an online discussion on Wednesday where it launched its most recent report. Hosted by Ahsan Yusuf, the conference featured experts on the subject from around the world.

Pakistan has had a sticky, though surprisingly fortunate, journey through the pandemic. Our government, our task forces, our civil servants and our influential personalities have had an incoherent vision of it, making their united efforts embarrassingly subpar. When the pandemic first spread across the world, the popular opinion in Pakistan held it as a punishment for the world's kufaars as many Pakistanis took joy and even relief at the news.

However, when the pandemic predictably made its way into Pakistan, the nation was shocked. PM Imran Khan couldn't decide whether it is 'just a flu' or a potential national crisis. He saw no reason to shut the country down, his government failed at addressing the issue, and the virus went haywire. As the death toll rose and we ran out of ventilators and hospital space, the national narrative needed a new target and Maulana Tariq Jameel provided one: Pakistan's women.

Quarantine centre in Karachi
Quarantine centre in Karachi

The maulana's emotional dua was aired live on TV stations across the country in which he blamed the pandemic on women's immodesty. Seconds after he went off air, social media went into a meltdown. Most of the country echoed Jameel's words, now empowered by his authority, and the patriarchy had (yet another) heyday.

"More than six months have elapsed since [the start of the pandemic] and there is still no recognition or acknowledgement in the media that Covid-19 is a gendered crisis. In the Pakistani media as in ordinary people’s imagination, Covid-19 is a crisis for the country and its dismal healthcare system (governed primarily by men), for the economy and for many businesses (most of which are run by men), for politics (the main participants of which are men), and even for national security and foreign policy (the guarantors of which happen to be men)," reads the Uks report titled 'Pakistani Media in the Time of COVID-19: A Gendered Focus'.

In the study, the institute studied five of the biggest TV news channels — Geo News, ARY News, 92-HD News, Dunya News and Hum News — during Pakistan's primetime 9pm bulletin. This time slot is popular for families sitting together and watching the news, with different age groups hence represented in the audience. Their findings were both disappointing and horrifying — perhaps more the latter than the former.

Pakistani Media in the Time of COVID-19: A gendered focus by Aks Research Centre, March 21
Pakistani Media in the Time of COVID-19: A gendered focus by Aks Research Centre, March 21

"In March, together these five channels broadcast 4,056 news items in the 9pm news bulletin. And together, they managed to include gender-aware content (including gender-based violence) only 85 times — that’s 2.1% of the entire content," read the report.

"The numbers worsened in April. News items that were gender-aware, gender-sensitive or were reporting gender-based violence fell to 30, out of a total 3,913 items that were broadcast. In other words, only 0.77% of the content took women into account. Interestingly this drastic fall in April coincides with the prime minister’s flip-flops about the nature and extent of the Covid-19 crisis."

The report noted that by omitting news about rape or sexual violence in the 9pm bulletin, the people most likely to become victims are deprived of the information.

Pakistani Media in the Time of COVID-19: A gendered focus by Aks Research Centre, March 21
Pakistani Media in the Time of COVID-19: A gendered focus by Aks Research Centre, March 21

Shireen Pervin Haq of the Naropokkho, a women's activists' organisation based in Dhaka, spoke on the issues that marred regular life for women in Bangladesh before and after the pandemic. When asked to comment on the current political situation in her country, she called it one of the worst authoritarian rules since the nation's independence. "We now have the digital security act here. Political opposition, writers, journalists, cartoonists — all are in danger. You can get jailed for seven years for criticising the government and the ruling family," she said, regretting the government's attack on freedom of speech.

Comparing their situation with Pakistan — in light of the blasphemy and other allegations on women's movements, like the Aurat March — she said it looked grim for both countries. Yusuf chose to call this phenomenon cultural fascism, where any drive for social change is shot down under the pretext of protecting local culture and heritage.

She confessed that the situation for women doesn't look too bright in Bangladesh either, with religious parties attacking those that fight for it. "It's ridiculous, at one stage they even said that girls need not go to school beyond grade four. It makes no sense," said the activist.

Bangladeshi gender equality activists protesting
Bangladeshi gender equality activists protesting

Indian journalist and documentary filmmaker Nupur Basu spoke about the situation in her own country.

"The UN secretary general said the Covid crisis has a woman's face, and certainly that isn't being reflected in South Asia. Invisibalisation and misogyny seems to be a heavy cocktail in our region. That is not to say violence against women in Covid times is not a problem beyond this region, such cases have been reported in the west too. When it comes to women, we have a universal misogyny that exists," she said.

She noted the contributions of Indian women health workers, called Asha workers, and said they had done a terrific job in India's fight against the virus. They were dealing with a tough populace, she noted, where they were attacked and ridiculed but they continued their efforts. The media covered this initially, though it died down quite fast, and that was sad. In many cases, these health workers weren't even being paid, she said.

Protesters in India
Protesters in India

Rose Lukalo, a journalist and expert from Kenya, said of her country's media, "Many in the broadcast media do make an effort to include stories on women, and female experts, but it's more of a numbers game. So we end up with a lot of un-reported cases, we don't really hear how the pandemic is affecting women, or if it is even affecting them more than men."

She regretted that there was a big gap in the public perception of the virus, noting how lower socio-economic classes have reservations. "They don't believe it's an issue. They think it's a problem of the rich. This is because media tends to frame it in terms of hospital beds, oxygen availability and access to healthcare — things that, even in the best of times, many of these people don't have access to."

The most interesting thing Lukalo said about the pandemic in Kenya was, "Women don't want to lose what Covid has given them." She said this comes from her own reporting, in an article she wrote. When she was speaking with the affected women, she learnt that while they did acknowledge the difficulties of working from home, with kids around, they didn't want to give it up.

"It's a new experience. Women are realising what they give up when they go to the workplace, and realising there's actually an opportunity to create a different reality," she said.

Photo: Reuters
Photo: Reuters

Muhammad Khalid, a Pakistani development sector professional who has put almost a quarter of a century into championing women's rights, begun his talk with, "Definitely we are losing ground. As UN Women has declared, it [women's rights] is a shadow pandemic during the pandemic."

Speaking of South Asia specifically, he said development and women's concerns have never been a story for broadcast or print. Since the media is focused on ratings, it is sensationalism that rules their performance. We have seen them report things that are extreme, but there is no consistency or follow ups. He dubbed this phenomenon the 'South Asia Syndrome'.

Khalid also regretfully noted that all the progress we have made over the years, after decades of dedicated effort, is being lost fast. Some of this is because of the pandemic, but mostly because of the policies of the regimes in power in countries in our region and around the world, he said. "We have seen women have lost jobs," he said, then stating his personal opinion that, "We are losing strong voices on gender in the media. There is a vacuum."

Calling it an "imaginative story", he spoke of how reporters will stand at the site of an incident and invent stories that more accurately fit 'it could've happened this way' than how it actually did. Referring to the motorway rape case, he said if we look at the reporting of the incident, we see a lot of sensationalisation. He criticised how the story was dealt with, the way it was reported and the language they used to talk about it it.

Khalid saw all of these as reinforcing the stereotypes the media is supposed to in fact be settling as un-true myths. "They're saying what has happened is because of women themselves. Same is the mind of the political leadership, and same with government employees," he said. "There is no research-based or evidence-based reporting on certain cases," he noted sadly. Speaking of three of first-of-its-kind reports published on gender based violence in Pakistan, he said it's regretful that no analyses, reporting, nor follow ups have been done of them by the media.

Laughably, he said the only part of those reports covered by were the launches, where high-profile individuals spoke on stage. There was no mention of the findings or what has happened.

In Punjab, he said, one study states that 27% of the marriages are child marriages. "It's a huge number. The cost they calculated was up to $4.75 million per annum to the economy. That has not become a story. We need to do that, to create action in the civil society." He noted that the civil society is considered a key partner in UN Women's efforts for the social elevation of women in Pakistan.

We have seen some excellent efforts from women towards the cause during the pandemic, he said. For example, in Islamabad and Rawalpindi, female police officers have come up with innovative models to address gender based violence and issues for reporting, explained Khalid. They've developed such dedicated reporting desks with no support from their seniors, and no specific budget allocation, he said, but unfortunately, the media has not picked up these champions.

Among the most alarming things for Khalid globally is cyber harassments. "During 2020, a UN Women supported helpline on cyber harassment was active in Pakistan. Starting from January, it started with 100 cases per month though by July the number had rocketed to 700 cases per month. But that has not become a story." Another study, by an organisation dedicated to studying women and their issues, reported that during 2020, 25 districts in Pakistan reported 114 suicide cases.

"An alarming case I came across a few weeks back was that a woman in Karachi had committed suicide due to cyber harassment and blackmailing. She even sent a voice note to a friend before killing herself, however, we don't know what the friend did. There was a gap between the message and the act. Did the friend tell someone? Where was the response service?" Khalid questioned.

Cosette Thompson, a women rights professional working out of Rutgers University, noted that the pandemic is a gendered crisis, echoing the calls of her colleagues around the world. She said, however, we must fight the urge to call gender-based violence a pandemic crisis. It has been a crisis long before the pandemic, which has admittedly worsened the situation, she said.

Thompson confessed that even in the American media, such cases get very uneven coverage, both in scope and depth. She admitted that collection of data, as others said before her in the discussion, is the nucleus of the problem.

"In the US, one other data issue is the lack of data segregated by race. This is really a priority in this country," she said. She continued, referring to a recent study by the Journal of General Internal Medicine, "Black women in the US are dying from Covid-19 at a higher rate than every other demographic group, except Black men. The Boston Globe was the only major newspaper that covered the story." She said the discrepancy between the large number of incredible studies coming out on the pandemic and the coverage of those studies is an issue they face too.

As the media grows and increases its circle to include ever more readers and viewers, there is an inevitable responsibility that falls on its shoulders. While a lot of the fulfilment of that responsibility is hindered by government policies and the general freedom of the media, the will remains a key factor — the will to have these conversations, to fulfil one's responsibility, to help create a safer, more tolerant society. Discussions like the one organised by Uks are important because they start a much needed conversation, and we need more people contributing more sincerely.

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