COVID-19 and women journalists

—by Lubna Jerar Naqvi

Women make up a large portion of the labour force in Pakistan. However, they are mostly engaged in non-paying jobs which consumer a large part of their day. Their skills are underused and wasted, and they do not contribute to the economy but they use resources – meagre as these may be.

Women are usually doing non-paying jobs like caring for family, running the house and tending other important yet non-lucrative jobs.With this huge labour engaged, the number of earning members decrease, and therefore the income to provide the basics to the family.

The economic situation of women has been very bad even before the pandemic hit. But UN reports that even before COVID-19 women spent more time doing unpaid work – an average of 4.1 hours per day – compared to men’s 1.7 hours of unpaid work. The 4.1 hours per day of unpaid work included unpaid care work predominately of family members.

According to UN Women the gender poverty gap is for every 100 men between the age of 25 to 34, 118 women will be in extreme poverty, and this poverty gap could increase by 2030.

UN Women and UNDP report titled ‘From Insights to Action: Gender Equality in the wake of COVID-19’said ‘the pandemic will push 96 million people into extreme poverty by 2021’ and that 47 million more women and girls will be pushed under the poverty line because of the pandemic.

The report revealed that ‘globally 247 million women above the age of 15 will be living on less than $1.90 per day in 2021 as compared to 236 million men’.

It also said ‘The poverty rate for women was expected to decrease by 2.7 per cent between 2019 and 2021, but projections now point to an increase of 9.1 per cent due to the pandemic and its fallout.

The fallout of Covid-19 will not only affect women’s present circumstances but it will have lasting adverse effects on their lives. According to UNESCO’s estimate ‘an additional11 milllion girlsmay leave school by the end of the COVID crisis’ and based on the past there are indicators that they will not return to school.

This means that women will struggle harder to bridge the existing economic gap which will only be widened by the pandemic making themfurther economically weak and vulnerable to lack of access to health and education, loss of livelihood and increase in the cases of violence.

Like all other professions, the media has also been affected by COVID-19 especially women journalists.

A survey conducted in July 2020 by the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) stated in a survey that more than 500 women journalists from 52 countries participated in revealed that women journalists have been under increased pressure and stress at work.

The causes for increased stress included lack of proper SOPs to protect from the virus, inadequate facilities to work from home (WFH) and increase in harassment and bullying including online.

Speaking about the issues of women journalists during the COVID-19, Aajiz Jamali – General Secretary, Karachi Union of Journalists (KUJ)and editor reporting, Roznama Jahan-e-Pakistan saidthings are extremely bad for media in Pakistan. WFH has not made things easier for many working in the media, especially women who are working harder than before as now they are working at home as well as in office more. Their work has doubled and their time is divided between office work and home.

He added, “Two women reporters were laid off and one is working without pay in the organization I work for. And despite orders to WFH, many people do not follow this in the media. A large number of people come to work including women. Those women journalists who do not come to work face deduction in salaries.”

Many other issues have also increased after the pandemic hit. The IFJ highlighted the stresses that included “working in isolation, bullying from bosses, family caring and home schooling, domestic tensions, increased workload and the usual tight deadlines, long working hours, psychological impact of COVID coverage, fear of job loss”.

According to another survey conducted by IFJ in April 2020 in 77 countries, 7.4% women against 6.5% men have lost their jobs and 19% of women against 27.5% men said they found it difficult to find independent sources.

Many women journalists across the world are suffering from added problems in their job due to coronavirus pandemic and the situation that has emerged in this situation is quite bad.One major problem is job insecurity.

“A large number of journalists have been laid off from newspapers and TV channels, and their salaries have also been cut during the coronavirus pandemic in Pakistan.”Said Aajiz Jamali. “Karachi Union of Journalists (KUJ) has constantly informed the Sindh Government of the issues faced by all the media, especially the increasing injustice during coronavirus pandemic. Journalists including women journalists have suffered as high as 40% reduction in their salaries for the past one year. This is in contravention to Sindh Government’s own ordinance that no worker will be sacked during the lockdown due to coronavirus. But despite this, media houses did not follow this order, and the Sindh Government or Federal Government did not take any measures to ensure that this was enforced.”

Women journalists faced stress but this was not restricted to their work load at office. In the lockdown, many people were working from home but this only meant their jobs were relevant to be done online. For those doing offline jobs mainly domestic help there was naturally no WFH facility. When they stopped coming, the burden fell mostly on women and double the work for working women, who had to tackle both office and home chores every day.

Even WFH didn’t help, as they were pulling long hours at online office and also juggle the house as Munazza Siddiqui, Executive Producer Geo News, Karachi said,

“The first wave of the pandemic closed down everything – the domestic staff couldn’t come to work because of the lockdown which doubled the burden on women. Whether they were WFH or from office on alternate days, they still had to work when they went home.”

“In my newsroom and in general I saw there was more understanding for people during COVID. this was regardless of the gender. That was at par.” Munazza added. “But the aspect of womennow had to look after the home as well and fill in for domestic staff added to her burden. There was less understanding of the issues faced in WFM especially for women. And that WFM did not mean less but more work.”

However, as Munazza said no one said anything in her organization but it was the body language and subtle inferences of that since work is being done from home, it must be better.
“It was like you are working out of choice and everyone does this and when women want equality they should also deal with this – not said out loud but you knew it was being suggested.

Fortunately, Munazza’s organization has not laid off anyone during the pandemic. “No one was laid off at Geo and we didn’t see any non-payment of salary due to coronavirus pandemic. I don’t know about other organizations although I heard about this in other media houses but that was not based on gender.”

Senior journalist Seema Shafi – reporter and senior subeditor Business Recorder – added to this.“Women journalists have always faced a lot of problems and insecurity in their jobs. Sometimes we have seen that when things get bad, the first to be laid off are women. During lockdown due to COVID we saw that women were made to work online – which made them feel insecure and stressed that they were being made redundant.”

Seema Shafi added that as it is women face a lot of stress as they juggle home and work in normal times but the added burden during the pandemic has only put more pressure on them as they have many different roles like mother, wife, sister, daughter and daughter-in-law.

“Even though the work hours were reduced, the workload was not and many lost their jobs because they couldn’t handle the stress.” She added.

Ruhina Ferdous, Sub Editor (Editorial Department), Daily Bonik Barta, Bangladesh reveals that women journalists in other countries are also suffering.

Ruhina said,“This media industry is largely male-dominated. Journalism is challenging for women because it is basically considered a male profession. So, women have to face many unwanted obstacles in society, family, and the workplace.”

Commenting on the effects of Covid19 on the profession, Ruhina said, “Covid-19 pandemic had made the situation worse and has only accelerated the situation. Declining ad revenues have led to massive job cuts for journalists in Bangladesh. Many women journalists lost their jobs, due to the implementation of the journalist retrenchment policy to fight the financial impact of Covid-19. There is a high ratio of women journalists being relieved from jobs or asked to stay on leave without pay in Bangladesh.”

Nida Sakeena Siddiqui – Sub-editor, Jang Newspaper based in Pakistan – has been working in the media for several years said commenting on the pandemic,

“COVID pandemic hit the world last year affecting life as we knew it. It has caused a lot of problems for working people with added stress for them. Many found it difficult to continue their jobs. Majority of people began working from home because of the lockdown but this only increased the problems faced by them, especially for journalists.”

Speaking about women journalists, Nida said, “Women journalists face many challenges while they are working but the COVID situation only added to the stress. Staying at home caused problems like difficulty to generate content, take proper interviews etc.”

“Every story was about the corona.” Nida said. “There were no social events, we could not meet anyone… how were we going to make interesting content. It isn’t easy to keep getting new angles for the same story – how many things could we cover about corona?”

When mainstream journalists are facing such crisis, what would freelance journalists be going through.

Freelance journalists have always faced problems in Pakistan but with the onset of COVID things have become a nightmare.  The current situation is bad for the whole industry but freelance journalists are the worst hit as journalist Rabia Mushtaq said, “I decided to freelance after quitting my job last year but I realized this decision didn’t come at a good time. Sending out several pitches since the last week of January, I have beenunable to get a single piece commissioned. That’s concerning now as this is hitting my financial situation hard.”

Vulnerabilities in the media during COVID19 and lockdown should be taken seriously and steps taken to resolve any problems arising from this. Women are the worst hit and measures need to be devised to ensurethatthey are not targeted in crises like pandemics and laid off. Employment is their basic right, and getting paid for the work they do is also their right, only if gender disparity in salary was also rectified quickly so that women are not deprived of their basic right.

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