Women journalists bring diverse perspectives, but their presence in newsrooms remains sparseIt’s time for the Nepali media to reflect on gender inequality in newsrooms and act to reverse the imbalance, women journalists say.
In October 2019, when a woman accused Krishna Bahadur Mahara of attempted rape, the news spread like wildfire. Mahara had to step down as the House Speaker. In the following weeks, there were interviews with the accuser on various online portals, where she appeared to be making conflicting statements. Many were quick to question her initial testimony. Then, Binu Subedi of Kantipur, the Post’s sister paper, interviewed her for her side of the story.
“The story mattered because no one was telling her story; everyone focused more on Mahara, questioning her character and mental status,” Subedi told the Post.
Mahara was acquitted last month, but Subedi’s reporting was widely shared and talked about because it reflected on what could have changed the accuser’s statement, putting forth a voice that called for a proper investigation.
“It’s important for women to be part of the newsroom because news articles frame people’s mind, and sometimes when we don’t present different perspectives of the events, the truth never gets a chance,” said Subedi. “Women in the newsroom bring different perspectives and make people aware of different sensitivities that they may not otherwise realise.”
This is especially important in a country like Nepal, where the presence of women in the mainstream media remains dismal. While newsrooms are dominated by men, there are also very few women in leadership.
“What you miss by not having enough women represented in the media, and in parallel, not having enough minority and marginalised groups reflected in the media is that their stories, which are equally important stories, get missed out,” said Subina Shrestha, a journalist and filmmaker.
Shrestha says the imbalance of women’s representation in the media is a reflection of the country’s government, where women are highly underrepresented.
According to a 2017 study by the Federation of Nepali Journalists, the umbrella organisation of journalists in Nepal, of the 13,050 working journalists in the country, only 2,354 are women.
At the Post, although more women have been hired over the past two years, male reporters still dominate daily and most feature bylines. According to a survey by Freedom Forum, ‘Women in Newsroom’, between October and December 2018, the Post had more men bylines than those of women on the front page.
Newsrooms, which shine a light on the lack of representation of women in politics, Parliament and other state organs, have largely failed to pay heed to their own staff demographics.
According to Pranika Koyu, a rights activist and poet, like in any other sector in Nepal, patriarchy prevails in the newsroom as well.
“When there are too many men in leading positions, they are bound to feel entitled, as patriarchy itself is very pervasive,” said Koyu. “But by having women in the same space, it allows more inclusive and progressive coverage of stories.”
When men are dominant in the newsroom, it tends to reflect not just in the kind of stories they write or the angles they pursue but also in the sources being quoted.
“Perhaps, the lack of #metoo coverage also says a lot about women in newsrooms,” Koyu told the Post. “Women in newsrooms can certainly also shape stories like #metoo in non-sensational well framed reportage.”
For women journalists, more inclusive newsrooms enable stories to be told in better, unconsidered ways.
“We need to tell our own stories to make people understand what we go through,” said Uma Bista, deputy photo editor at the Annapurna Post, a vernacular daily. “Of course, men too can tell our stories, but when a woman is telling the story, it’s more powerful because we can relate with women’s issues in ways men are unable to.”
Bista recently did a photo story, ‘Our Songs from the Forest’, to put a spotlight on young women fighting Chhaupadi, an outlawed practice that forces women to live in sheds while they are menstruating.
Until recently, very few women had reported on instances of Chhaupadi, which despite being criminalised in 2017, continues to be practised.
In 2019, Menuka Dhungana, Kantipur’s Achham correspondent, wrote a front page story, ‘Ma euti [I am a] Chhaupadi reporter’.
The article immediately attracted attention. The story, written in a first person narrative, took readers deep into the system, explaining how Dhungana had earned the sobriquet of ‘Chhaupadi reporter’ and how she herself had been a victim of the age-old practice.
Women journalists say that it would not have been possible for a male journalist to tell the story the way Dhungana did.
“A woman’s phenomenological experience allows for a more empathetic narration,” said Koyu.
Women journalists though say things have changed in the recent past, more needs to be done to make Nepali newsrooms more inclusive.
There are women reporters and editors in newsrooms today, but they are still in the minority, according to Shrestha, who feels documentation of women stories is still sparse.
And even when women are present in the newsroom, they are limited to covering ‘women’s issues’ and are rarely given the opportunity to move into other beats that are seen to be more serious, said Babita Basnet, editor of Ghatana Ra Bichar, a weekly political newspaper.
“Women in the newsrooms are rarely mentored to become leaders. They are rather put into soft beats like food and entertainment.”
Subedi is a rare exception, as she covers politics, which has long been considered the sole province of men. And Basnet too is an exception, as she might be the sole female editor of a newspaper.
“Just having a woman in the decision-making position changes the dynamics of the newsroom as well as the stories that come out,” said Koyu, the activist and poet. “They don’t necessarily need to write these stories, but women in the room can tell co-workers how the story should be treated and told.”
In Nepali newsrooms, many say, it’s not only about the number of women, but also diversity when it comes to the women themselves.
Shrestha said when she reached out to the Federation of Nepali Journalists as part of her research on representation of Dalit women journalists, she was appalled.
“The number turned out to be less than one percent,” she told the Post. “And that number reflects in the news reports on rape incidents.”
According to a report by FEDO Nepal, or Feminist Dalit Organisation, that works for Dalit women’s rights, 21 percent of girls raped are Dalits.
“Now, think about these numbers and why a more detailed investigation was not done,” said Shrestha. “Do these numbers really affect the majority of the men in newsrooms?”
According to Basnet, as the world marks International Women’s Day on Sunday with the theme ‘I am Generation Equality: Realizing Women's Rights’, it’s time to introspect the gender inequality in newsrooms.
“It’s important to understand why we need more women in media and more women stories,” said Basnet. “We need more stories to inspire more participation of women in all sorts of works, to be enabled together and to share our knowledge with each other.”