Million of Indians took part in anti-rape protests this year, including this protest in Delhi in April. Photo by Ramesh Lalwani.
This past year has been a turning point for media discussion of sexual assault in India, with last December’s high-profile gang rape in Delhi generating unprecedented public interest in the treatment of women and unleashing extensive news coverage of sexual violence in the country. But despite this recent spike in reporting on issues of gender inequality, India’s media industry continues to be overwhelmingly male-dominated. Recent studies show that women make up only 2.7 percent of India’s local journalists.
While professional journalists are struggling to assert themselves in an industry that is inhospitable to women, a citizen journalism movement is on the rise in India. New technologies and an increasing mainstream audience for discussion of gender issues has empowered a growing community of women to report on social justice issues on their own, outside traditional media institutions.
Deep-rooted problems make it hard for women to be effective journalists in India. In addition to cultural biases against women working in public careers, several events have brought to light the everyday violence and harassment Indian women working in the media experience. Female journalists, like women in many careers in India, struggle with rampant sexual harassment in the workplace. Two weeks ago, a female reporter at progressive newsmagazine Tehelka accused her editor in chief, Tarun Tejpal, of sexually assaulting her. In her resignation letter, she expressed disappointment that her colleagues had chosen to stand with Tejpal, reinforcing the culture of male privilege in the industry. In August, a 22-year old photojournalist was gang raped in Mumbai while searching for a photoshoot location. Her story prompted many other female journalists to come forward to share their experiences of violence on the job.
While some women try to hack out a journalism career in often-oppressive workplaces, other women are taking advantage of new and inexpensive technologies to create their own content and distribute it widely. Only 16 percent of the Indian population has access to the internet and only about 26 percent uses a mobile phone—all together, about 90 percent of mobile internet users in India are men. But women are increasingly finding ways to make their own media using technology in innovative ways.
Video Volunteers, for example, trains villagers in India to produce video news reports. Founded in 2002 by Jessica Mayberry, a former CNN journalist, and run by a team of Indian staff, the organization’s mission is to give voice to people whose stories are not heard in the mainstream media. Women create 50 percent of the group’s news reports are generated by women, covering often-overlooked topics such as temple prostitution and child marriage. These videos are then shown in public screenings and on the internet, where they are occasionally picked up by cable news broadcasters.
Here is a Video Volunteers report on the hurdles of dealing with caste politics as a midwife:
Another grassroots organization, CGNet Swara, offers a voice-based platform that allows untrained citizens to report news through their mobile phones. Shubranshu Choudhary, a former BBC South Asia producer, developed the technology together with an MIT researcher, Bill Thies, to redress what he describes as an “undemocratic media landscape” in India that focuses overwhelming on the concerns of wealthy, urban communities. In 2010, he deployed CGNet Swara in the war-torn tribal belt of Central India and currently receives 400 messages a day from citizen journalists. A team of editors go through incoming voice messages, cross-checks them and distributes top stories on the organization’s hotline and website. Over 30 percent of reports come from women and Choudhary is actively encouraging more to participate by carrying out workshops for women.
Both organizations have had a tangible impact on women’s lives. For instance, Video Volunteers recently released a video report about Pushpa, a childcare worker who was dismissed because she is a dalit, the lowest class within India’s caste system. The widely disseminated video forced village officials to reconsider the rights of dalit women in the childcare system and ultimately resulted in Pushpa being reinstated to her job. Similar outcomes have been seen with CGNet Swara. In August, a citizen journalist called Swara to report that a tribal woman had been gang raped. Local police wound up hearing the story and arrested the three alleged rapists.
So far, these citizen journalist initiatives have been deployed on a relatively small scale compared to India’s national news media outlets, but women have been very well represented in these efforts. Technologists are actively working to find other ways to increase women’s participation in the Indian media using new tools.
Aditya Vashistha, a researcher at the University of Washington, has worked on projects that invite victims of domestic abuse and sexual violence to report what they have experienced through an interactive voice platform. “Because of these new technologies, this is the first time in history that so many Indian women can be active content creators,” he says. “It is an enormous power that they have in their hands.” Given how poorly the mainstream Indian news media has represented women’s interests in the past, citizen journalism could be a game changer for Indian women seeking to make their voices heard.
Elizabeth Segran is a contributor to Foreign Affairs, The Nation, The Atlantic and Salon. She received her Ph.D. in South and Southeast Asian Studies with a specialization in women, gender and sexuality from the University of California Berkeley. Find her @LizSegran.