As Pakistan gears up for its general election on July 25, there are renewed fears of an increased crackdown on freedom of the press, with rising reports of censorship of newspapers, TV channels, and social media.
But for female journalists, the challenges don’t stop here.
Threats of gender-based violence, harassment, negative societal attitudes, stifled career progress, and a significant gender pay gap are only some of the added challenges that test the resilience of Pakistan’s small but thriving community of female journalists.
Less than 5 percent of journalists in Pakistan are women, which raises serious questions about how the media can reflect and inform public opinion when the sector is so unrepresentative of the society it serves.
The organization I work for, International Alert, recently spoke to female journalists in the provinces of Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK), to understand the challenges they face and hear their stories. The research, we hope, will help toward finding solutions to create a more inclusive media environment in Pakistan.
What these journalists told us sheds an interesting light on some of the key issues facing women in the media in Pakistan. Sexual harassment is one such issue. A 2017 survey highlighted that almost one in two female journalists in Pakistan have experienced gender-based violence in the course of their work and only 24 percent have not reported facing any form of harassment.
The journalists we worked with said that harassment often comes from within their own media outlets and is most likely to be perpetrated by their immediate line managers. Many women said a refusal to accede to grossly inappropriate advances from those in positions of power often leads to detrimental impacts on their career. In the wake of the global #MeToo movement, this issue does at least appear to be getting some public attention in the country.
Social pressure was another key issue highlighted almost universally among the journalists we spoke to. Many felt stigmatized as “bad women” because of their career choices. Some had had their character explicitly questioned, while others felt their families were unhappy with them for entering a traditionally male-dominated world.
Interestingly, all the women we spoke to said that they were only able to successfully work as journalists because they had the support of the men in their family. Without this, they said, they might have had to give up on their dreams of becoming a journalist. Many women said they felt an expectation to adopt traditionally masculine traits to compete in the sector, a sentiment reflected in the global experiences of female journalists.
Alert’s research also revealed an almost complete absence of support from the women’s employers. Many complained about a gender pay gap, even when women felt they were more qualified and experienced than their male counterparts. Between a lack of any equality policy, prejudice of male counterparts, and a refusal to offer women the opportunity to report the beats they prefer, female journalists paint a picture of antiquated, male-dominated institutions where women’s presence in the newsroom is seen as a novelty at best and a threat to existing powers at worst.
An overwhelming majority of female journalists in Punjab and KPK said their employers fail to provide them with transport to get to the locations where they need to report from, particularly when they need to work late.
The journalists complained about inadequate maternity leave, with some saying they only received a month’s leave. Others had it even worse, with one interviewee saying her employer offers only one month’s unpaid maternity leave. Online media was seen as slightly more supportive than print, but even then maternity leave was seen a special favor rather than rooted in a specific policy.
Despite the challenges, increasing numbers of female journalists are working in Pakistani media, acting as role models and supporting networks of those that follow. Efforts are also underway to respond to the above issues and create a more inclusive environment for journalists, with the Coalition for Women in Journalism launching its Pakistan chapter earlier this year.
International Alert too continues to work with journalists in Pakistan to promote diversity and representation of marginalized voices in the media. Through “Inclusive Media Forums,” Alert has successfully brought together groups of media professionals who report on complex issues without creating tensions between or within communities.
Our interviews were with journalists from Punjab and KPK provinces, and we cannot claim that they are representative of a national scale. But many of the issues raised here fit in with established wider narratives regarding the experience of women working in Pakistani media.
This research has offered valuable insight into the myriad barriers women face in fulfilling their potential within Pakistan’s media sector. Addressing these challenges will be a solid step toward creating a more diverse and inclusive media landscape in Pakistan.
Rabia Nusrat is International Alert’s Regional Projects Manager for Afghanistan and Pakistan.