In March, a month before India's general election, I went on a reporting trip to Bihar. While there, I sent a text to a senior editor at a national magazine. "More than three million women, employed by the Indian government as midday meal cooks in schools, are paid a tenth of the minimum wage," I told him. "That's just half a dollar for at least eight hours of work. The worst kind of gender pay gap exists here."
As any reporter would be, I was shocked and fascinated by what I had found out in Bihar, an eastern state that occupies one of the lowest spots on India’s Human Development Index. It was a brand new story. Something I had not heard of before.
Then came the reply. It read: "Great. But what about the Pulwama effect?"
Instead of replying to my actual message, the editor wanted to know about the impact upon the electorate of steadily rising tensions between India and Pakistan. Following the February 14 killing by suicide bomb of 40 Central Reserve Police Force personnel in the Pulwama district of Jammu and Kashmir, that particular subject was right at the top of the national agenda.
In that one brief exchange, it was clearly established that conflict and "big politics" is what really shapes election results. The daily burdens of the gender pay gap, which affect millions of women in all walks of life – most of all the poor and marginalised – is apparently nowhere near as important.
In the past five years, we have seen a record number of women elected to key positions across the globe. Exemplary nations include France, Canada and Rwanda. In the 2019 polls, India also elected 78 women to parliament – 14 per cent of the total number, the highest ever in the country’s history.
According to Election Commission of India data, the turnout of women voters increased from 66 per cent in 2014 to 68 per cent in 2019. This has closed the gender gap between men and women voters. It establishes that women are not just serious political contenders, but that they also form important electoral constituencies, which need to be paid due attention.
Yet male agendas still form the bedrock of public discourse. Media outlets refuse to treat women and other groups as equal participants in the nation and its politics. So, how can we begin to fix this problem?
The answer is that we can apply something known as a gender lens. A gender lens is not a tangible object; it is a way of looking at things, a means to critically assess a wide range of social and political situations, in order to see how gender-inclusive or gender-sensitive they are.
In a world in which most critical decision-making powers lie with men, this approach shifts the focus and allows us to identify opportunities for those powers to be distributed more evenly. It highlights the difference between female and male interests at numerous levels – be that within the same household, state or country – and also shows how they interact.
Put simply, it is like a pair of spectacles that correct the prevailing view of women and their place in the world.
Across the global media, women are trivialised, objectified and sexualised. Application of the gender lens provides a viewfinder that filters all of that out and exposes the roots of inequality. It places the spotlight on the realities, needs and perceptions of women. Far from ignoring men, it simply allows them to consider the world in a more holistic manner and reveals how their own interests intersect with those of women.
For example, in developing economies, such as India, food security is an issue of great importance. In 2013, India passed the National Right to Food Act, which aims to provide subsidised food grains to approximately two-thirds of India's 1.2 billion people. According to the International Food Policy Research Institute, one-third of Indian women are malnourished. Conventional media reporting around this legislation has always been in terms of logistics and the responses of the main political parties to the problem.
In addition to these wider issues, gender-lens reporting would look at why hunger affects so many women and render visible the discreet groups that make up that cohort: younger widows, homeless, mentally or physically challenged, and single women. Inclusive reporting would also look at how many women were involved in the decision-making processes leading up to the passing of the act. After all, it is women that such legislation affects most, so they should have a strong hand in establishing it.
That one example proves that in any story about international development, many layers remain unexplored. Comprehensive and genuinely reflective coverage has an obligation to consider them all.
Rarely does this happen. Many news organisations believe that they are pulling their weight, because they publish a few pieces that cater to women – the odd inspirational business story, something about reproductive health, the occasional report of domestic or sexual violence.
With a few exceptions, “women’s issues” are always seen as exclusive of the wider world of economics, politics, sport and current affairs. This is often evident in Indian television news, in which up to 12 talking heads mansplain democracy to the rest of the nation. Women make rare appearances, mostly as spokespeople for more important men, or as activists or lawyers discussing one of the above “women’s issues”.
The fact that almost all of these men and women are upper caste only exacerbates the deep diversity problems that exist in the country. Wherever in the world you happen to be, politics intersects class, race, religion, nationality and gender. The world’s fundamental issues affect different people in different ways, and yet are universally relevant. That’s why we need everyone to look through the gender lens.
In the conventional reporting hierarchy, women’s issues are often perceived as a “soft” subject. There is nothing soft about war reporting or investigative journalism. Yet both fields abound with stories that directly relate to women’s – and, therefore, everyone else’s – lives.
According to the World Health Organisation, women and children account for more than 70 per cent of displaced persons in the wake of natural disasters. Not only that, their risk of exposure to sexual and domestic violence also rises, according to their circumstances. These, more nuanced, aspects of front-page stories are rarely addressed by newspapers and mainstream news websites.
The same applies to people affected by sectarian conflict. The majority of Rohingya women, displaced by the ethnic violence in Myanmar, and now settled in India, are acutely malnourished. They are also at the receiving end of the growing religious fundamentalism that has resulted from the oppression and marginalisation of the community in their homeland. Patriarchal restrictions prohibit them from venturing into the outside world to gain financial independence.
In situations of broader conflict, widely accepted gender roles mean that women become the primary caretakers for those most vulnerable after a disaster or conflict, including children, the elderly and the sick.
To cover important stories – be they of war, poverty, or crime – objectively and responsibly, it is vital that we all look for the intersections of gender and these “bigger” issues. Doing so paints a realistic picture of the world we live in and provides a solid foundation for change. That is clearly not just women’s work.
Neha Dixit is an independent journalist based in New Delhi, India. She covers politics, gender and social justice in South Asia