Pakistan’s SDG success hinges on media gender shift

Women broadcast at Herat National Radio
Copyright: Hossein Fatemi/Panos

Speed read

  • Media has poor record of raising awareness about development and gender
  • Sector must become less male-dominated and use more female experts
  • It also needs to devise broad strategy giving space to women’s concerns

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The male-dominated sector must broaden its vision to spark debate about women and development, says Tasneem Ahmar.

The world has spent years debating the successes and failures of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). But in Pakistan, most people — women in particular — did not even know what they stood for. Even the mainstream media were mostly unaware of the eight goals the country committed to meeting by 2015.

And things have not changed with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs): political debates, the war on terror, violent extremism, corruption and governance take up most of the media space and time. What space is left goes on trivial issues such as Valentine’s day or debates on who is a better Muslim and how.

On top of this, male domination of the media brings gender apathy, insensitivity and bias that leave little scope to discuss development issues through a gender lens.

As a result, the media in Pakistan not only failed to report on why the country missed its MDG targets, they also failed to focus on the fact that women were missing from MDG efforts. Women were not equal partners in the process of working towards the goals, their concerns were overlooked and their success stories were left untold.

“Women can only be equal partners when they are heard, loud and clear.”

Tasneem Ahmar

Pakistan’s media need to be more responsive to gender inequality, adhering to international commitments such as the 1995 Beijing Platform for Action. But for the SDGs to mean anything for women in Pakistan, they must first be informed about what they mean.

Narrow media vision

Pakistan is lucky to have a free and pluralistic media, but, at the same time, the vision of that media is hugely narrow. This is because it is a male-dominated sector. 

To broaden that vision, the country’s local, national and regional media have some questions to answer.

First, can Pakistan achieve any target for development without engaging half of its population? The answer is no — we need to look at every issue through a gender lens.

The media need to closely monitor government actions on issues of women’s health, education, mobility, equality and equity — and do so regularly, not merely as tokenism. There has been no shortage of training by NGOs on gender sensitivity and development journalism. It is time to put it all into practice, both to critique government actions and to give the public a voice.

The second question is whether women are equal partners as implementers as well as beneficiaries of development plans in Pakistan. Again, the answer is no, but they need to be.

A 2015 report on the country’s media sector found that women make up just 16 per cent of reporters in print, TV and radio combined. [1] Some news organisations have taken positive steps, but more should be done to bring more women into media professions and provide them equal opportunity for training — including in gender-sensitive reporting — along with their male colleagues.

Women can only be equal partners when they are heard, loud and clear. This applies to other areas too: to create a better, gender-sensitive society with balanced and non-biased information, we need more women as experts, analysts and mentors.
The next question is, of course, how to achieve this.

Radio clubs

There is a need to mobilise the media at all levels, particularly to use radio and informal messages (from sources other than the state) effectively through innovative and inexpensive means. ‘Listeners’ clubs’ — community spaces where people gather to listen to radio programmes — are one way of doing this.

These clubs have been successful in many developing countries and are now taking off in Pakistan. Uks, the media NGO I lead, has formed many such clubs, where groups of 30-35 women and men (sometimes in mixed groups) gather to listen to radio programmes that we produce in-house, on issues of interest to their community such as all forms of violence against women. Participants then discuss the content of these programmes and, above all, put into practice the lessons learned.

“Pakistan’s media must create public awareness and initiate informed debates about gender and development.”

Tasneem Ahmar

We make a point of weaving a strong awareness of gender into all clubs’ activities, strengthening the visibility of women and their ability to take part in decision-making. This approach has not focused on women alone: we strongly encourage the involvement of men and the expression of women’s and men’s needs.

Reporting language and media reform

More focus on the role of language as a barrier will also help. There is a stark difference between Pakistan’s vernacular and English language media in how they handle stories about women.

For example, when reporting on sexual crime, most vernacular media will focus on the woman involved rather than the crime itself. Images of rape victims or survivors, as well as judgemental language about them, continue to be used in crime reports that lack any investigative or analytical value.

The language used may even appear to ‘sympathise’ with the victim or survivor, which may sound positive but in fact has a huge negative impact on the development and empowerment of women: although it may help gain support, it negates the resilience and strength that women display during times of crisis, disaster and violence.

Pakistan’s media need to devise a broad strategy giving space to the concerns of women, minorities, young people and children. To do that, the media can use the huge archive of material available online from Uks, which, every day for almost two decades, has recorded women’s issues and how the country’s media report on them.

This can help educate media professionals to consider gender issues and develop critical media literacy — including how to counter gender discrimination and sexual harassment at work. Uks has also developed a gender-sensitive code of ethics, which we encourage other media to adopt through networking activities.

Pakistan’s media must create public awareness and initiate informed debates about gender and development. But change starts at home: the media themselves need to first become more focused and informed. Or else years later, we will be discussing our failure to achieve the SDGs as well.

Tasneem Ahmar is director of the Uks Research Centre and executive producer of Uks Radio in Islamabad-Karachi, Pakistan. She can be contacted at [email protected]