Sri Lankan Women Journalists Call For Gender Equity In Media

Laxmi Murthy

The small coastal town of Beruwela in Sri Lanka witnessed a historic Summit of women journalists on 13 and 14 March. More than 70 women journalists representing the Federation of Media Employees Trade Unions (FMETU), Sri Lanka Working Journalists’ Association (SLWJA), Free Media Movement, Sri Lanka Tamil Media Alliance (SLTMA) and the Sri Lanka Muslim Media Forum (SLMMF) came together to discuss issues of concern.

The Summit was organised by Sri Lanka’s Centre for Policy Alternatives in conjunction with the Voices of Reconciliation Program with the assistance of Canada’s Institute for Media, Policy and Civil Society (IMPACS) through funding from CIDA and Ausaid, and with the support of the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ).

Delivering the opening address, Jacqueline Park, Asia-Pacific Regional Director of the IFJ emphasized that journalists’ unions at national, regional and global level have a responsibility to address gender inequity. Equal access to promotion, to employment and to assignments, are the hot button issues for women journalists the world over, she said.

Highlighting the crucial role of the journalist organisations, Park said, “Women journalists are aware that because their movement has been successful in many areas there is the danger that journalists’ unions may feel that enough has been done to ensure equality in media even though inequalities remain, “ she said.

Park pointed out that in order for journalists' organisations to improve the conditions for women journalists, they often have to reform their own structures -- to ensure female representation in the union's policy-making and governing bodies. “Our unions need to be open to women – and to do this they must also consider their internal policies. If unions can establish gender equality internally, within the organisation, it is far more likely to have success promoting gender issues externally,” said Park. “Taking simple steps to make it easier for women to be involved are necessary. For example, holding family-friendly union meetings on a Saturday in a park, rather than at night during the week, when many women will be required at home with children,” added Park.

In “Invisible or Too Visible: The Parodoxical Portrayal of Women in the Media”, Laxmi Murthy, Program Manager with the IFJ outlined some of the issues with the skewed representation of women in mass media, and put forth some suggestions to redress the imbalance. The discussion that followed revealed many common concerns for Indian and Sri Lankan women journalists.

The interactive session “In conversation with Sri Lankan Women in Media” saw a lively discussion between participants and senior women journalists, including Nishani Dissanayake, Hana Ibrahim and Thewa Gowry. Besides sexual harassment at the workplace, a concern that repeatedly cropped up was the issue of what was termed “sexual favouration”, or women employees gaining privileges on the basis of sexual favours rather than merit or seniority. The discussion moved from condemning women who might take such a path to upward mobility, to understanding the power dynamics at workplaces that excluded women from positions of power.

Laxmi Murthy, also a member of the Network of Women in Media, India, presented the work of the Network, which aims to provide a forum for women in media to share information and resources, exchange ideas, promote media awareness and ethics, and work for gender equality and justice within the media and society. The Vishakha guidelines on sexual harassment at the workplace issued by the Supreme Court of India in 1997, and its implications for women journalists was also discussed. The need for such legislation in Sri Lanka emerged as a pressing need.

Group discussions on issues such as: The key gender equity issues for journalists in Sri Lanka; priorities in order of importance; barriers or obstacles to achieving these priorities; a strategy and action plan to achieve them. Issues that emerged were familiar concerns for all women media professionals: lack of access to promotions, sexual harassment, verbal abuse, rumour mongering, hostile work environment, lack of security for night shifts and lack of access to professional training and avenues for skill development.

The journalists present endorsed the “Charter Of Gender Equality For Media and Journalism in Sri Lanka”. The charter sets out the minimum standards, principles and actions needed to underpin gender equity in media in Sri Lanka and outlines a practical program of action to support the achievement of equality in media workplaces, journalists organisations and the media itself. To view the full charter please click .

The coming together of women journalists across ethnic divides that for decades have fractured Sri Lanka’s social and political life, was an unprecedented landmark in the island’s history. Forging unity as professionals, and working collectively to achieve gender equity was indeed encouraging.