Posted Dec 26, 2014 by Preeti Mangala Shekar and Ramakrishnan M
On November 14 & 15 this year, a workshop co-organized by Oxfam India, Prajnya (a Chennai-based feminist research and advocacy group) and the All India Disaster Mitigation Institute (AIDMI) brought together over a dozen journalists, activists and community experts to discuss how the media should be covering disasters.
Natural disasters such as earthquakes, the horrific 2004 Tsunami or cyclones that have become routine along India’s eastern coasts in recent decades have been a vital focus for Indian media but how do they report on them? How are women’s voices, agency and roles portrayed through pictures, as experts, news sources and so on?
The workshop started with getting basic terms right and not using certain ones interchangeably (like hazard & disaster — a hat tip given by one speaker was that establishing the difference between the two makes it clearer for the lay reader). Next was to use data or facts such that it creates a feeling of emergency in the mind. Consider the value of adding this to any disaster report in India:
Despite being one of the top 10 disaster-prone countries (27 out of 35 states and union territories are regular victims of some form of disaster or the other), our government enacted the Disaster Management Act only in 2005, after the South-East Asian tsunami.
To take this one step further, we can actually use figures like these with devastating effect to prove the gender angle is very important during natural catastrophes. Findings in recent post-disaster scenarios have shown that women represented an estimated 61% fatalities in Myanmar’s Cyclone Nargis, 70% after the 2004 tsunami and a horrific 91% after Cyclone Gorky hit Bangladesh in 1991. On an average, they are 14 times more vulnerable than men when it comes to fending for their lives during a disaster.
On the question of why this has become a pattern — especially in the Indian subcontinent — has a lot to do with the patriarchal culture that has remained unchanged for a long, long time. Women are usually under pressure to stay at home and take care of family requirements even when the home in question dangerously borders the disaster’s strike area. Ramya Kannan of The Hindu, during the workshop, explained how another answer (in the 2004 tsunami context in Tamil Nadu) remained hidden in plain sight. Fisherfolk who sell the catch by the shores are mostly women, while the men are almost always away at sea.
With all this baggage of disadvantage, it most certainly doesn’t help women survivors when the media squarely depicts them as passive victims and not as powerful or resilient agents of change that many are. As Swarna Rajagopalan of Prajnya succinctly put it: “What we look for, we see.” Ironically, for some reason, hurricanes and typhoons are mostly designated with a female name (Katrina, Sandy & Nargis to name a few)!
Journalist and author Ammu Joseph’s talk reinforced the depressing truth around that cliched adage — the more things change, the more they stay the same. Even though most journalism schools drill some form of awareness into their students about using a gender lens while covering stories, a reality check reveals that less than one-fourth of people heard about or read are women (Global Media Monitoring Project, 2005) and the same study rightly stated that the absence of gender in “hard news” stories reflects “a blinkered approach to the definition of news and newsworthiness.”
So how does one ensure that coverage of gender issues is reasonably good during disasters? There are no exhaustive, steadfast rules but ticking some of the checkboxes below can surely help:
- Before disasters
- -Establish contacts with key public-private players
- -Become familiar with disaster prone areas and gender issues
- -Don’t wait until disaster strikes – investigate levels of preparedness and vulnerability of women
- -Keep the memories of past disaster alive
- -Cover positive actions and stories on women’s vulnerability to disasters
- After disasters
- -Investigate causes of disasters with data
- -Demand and look for gender desegregated data
- -Cover stories of socio-economic and cultural impact of disaster on women
- -Cover stories that establish leadership role of women in recovery
- -Keep the topic alive; recovery is a long process
About the authors:
Preeti Mangala Shekar is an independent journalist who is based in the US
Ramakrishnan M is part of Oxfam India’s digital communications team
Related: Read Oxfam’s new report on how timely funding from the public helped people in crisis during the 2004 tsunami