By Gayanga Dissanayaka –
A survey conducted by Sri Lanka Development Journalist Forum (SDJF) and Centre for Media and Information Literacy (CMIL) discovered that only 1% of the women in local government bodies (LGB) are using media platforms including social media to raise their voice, express fair-dissents on legitimate concerns, and participate in democratic debates. This surprising truth was witnessed in real life when 20 women in LGB from the northern province were trained on the creative use of media platforms to strengthen their democratic participation.
Those 20 women from all five districts of the northern province were trained on both conceptual aspects of media such as understanding media, media landscape, media ownership, basics of news literacy, news and information ecosystem, gendered disinformation, etc. and practical aspects such as facing media interviews, writing press articles, organizing and attending press conferences, using social media safely, responsibly and effectively and also handling difficult situations with journalists.
The survey mentioned above revealed that 74% of women in LGB haven’t gone through any formal training on media usage, and more than 60% of them said that they aren’t comfortable in facing the media. Confirming this observation, the five consecutive trainings held in all five districts in the northern province brought light to several issues that these women have been going through with regard to how they use media and how media covers their concerns.
It was learned that to a greater extent women in LGB are spending their political career in a media dark, and are also less familiar on how the media manipulates the audience, sets agenda, determine what should and should not make news, and influence citizen’s decision while making use of its potential to amplify their voices and fair-dissents.
Majority of the participants confirmed that the media provides women in LGB a very little space despite the several activities they did that were beneficial to their constituencies. Many women affirmed that their vital political contributions make less prominence in the media and are often excluded in the media on the basis of their gender.
Women representatives in Vavuniya noted that the majority of male journalists in her region work under, in favor of, and for, powerful politicians where they often get incentives for providing undue publicity.
Anjalaa Kokilakumar, another LGB member from Vavuniya said “men politicians in the ground make a lot of media presence even for unworthy events that they are part of. Several journalists go behind male politicians covering even the routine things they do in their personal life, and publicize them on social media”. She added “Journalists contact women representatives only when there is fake, negative news and rumor regarding them.”
Participants from Jaffna admitted that being women, they are scared of the media. Vijayarupan Parathpadma, a LGB member from Jaffna said “how the media portray women in general panics us. Media often shows women in negative lights. In our experience the only time the media would focus on women in politics is when there is an unsubstantiated false allegation or rumor.
It was also discovered that social media continues to play a negative role in silencing the voice and digital presence of women representatives in LGB through gendered disinformation, sexist hate-speech, misogyny, and gender-based cyber violence. According to the survey 52% of these women representatives in LGB in rural areas use social media platforms for only basic personal purposes such as sharing pictures. Lack of knowledge on technology and access to digital training opportunities hinder their use of social media to advocate for their political goals and to amplify their voice and concerns.
It was learned that the women in LGB are often kept out of mainstream media and were made to believe that media is usually unfriendly. “We thought the media is something unapproachable and it is men who are predominantly privileged by it. We were made to believe that it was not easy to bring out the grievances of the people through the media,” said Dayanandan Jayachitra, member of the Poonangari Pradeshiya Sabha. However, “given the training, we are confident that we can successfully face media, deal with any difficult journalists, organize press conferences, and be part of any media discussion or debate,”she added.
Women in LGB observed that within the male dominant political system, their creative suggestions and recommendations are often undermined. Their dissents against vital issues related to governance, grassroots democracy, fundamental rights of politically, socially and economically marginalized communities, including women, LGBTQ+, differently-abled, are not given fair attention both within and outside the party. Majority of the women affirmed that staying in politics is a continuous struggle for them, and when the media suppress their real voices, it even becomes challenging to achieve their political goals.
One common aspect repeatedly raised is that the media does not provide fair coverage for the exceptional contribution done by the women in LGB. A 65 years old woman in the LGB told she introduced a successful self-saving scheme for women and vulnerable families as a way of tackling the hardships of micro-finances companies. However, she noted that such sensible and influential activities weren’t given any coverage or publicity by the media. Samantha Sudha, Urban Council member in Vavuniya mentioned that “Misinformation or rumour about women would get high publicity from the media whereas positive and empowering news about women aren’t adequately accommodated.” She further added that, “Being in municipal council for three years I have learned that it’s extremely important for women to stay in politics. Our presence has helped tackle concerns over issues affecting women in our region on several occasions.”
She further shared her very own experience in regards to this issue. In Vavuniya, there are 10 statues built in honour of community leaders. Women are not allowed to touch and worship those statues. Once the worshipping season arrives, people hold up a ladder and climb to the top of the statue to worship them. Samantha Sudha said that this method is futile and suggested building stairs, instead of holding ladders to the statues to make the ritual easier and practical. Eventually, they agreed and built the stairs while also giving the rights to the women to touch and worship the statues of the male community leaders. But such influential actions done by women weren’t covered by the media.
However, giving them practical know-how on various subjects such as facing interviews, attending press conferences etc, along with knowledge on media and information literacy, these women proved that they are highly capable of providing valuable insights, recommendations and opinions on matters that affect grassroots democracy. During the training, all 20 women attended at least one real press conference held with the regional journalists and provided one real interview for various webcasting sites articulating their ideas, concerns, and dissents. For the first time in their political career they organized their maiden press conference to discuss the importance of women participation in politics and other issues affecting women.
In Jaffna, women representatives brought forth their issues regarding women in politics while representatives of Vavuniya LGB specifically held their press conference on the importance of young women getting into politics. Similarly, the women representatives from Mullai-theevu, Kilinochchi and Mannar organized their press conferences on various issues such as illegal drugs, unattended housing schemes and other livelihood challenges.
The training series titled “She-Lead” emphasized the need of providing those courageous women in LGB with necessary training, technical-know-how, basic understanding about the media and critical thinking and strategic communication as a way of advancing their ability to raise their voice, amplify their fair concern in legitimate issues and to participate in democratic debates. The training was jointly organized by SDJF and CMIL and assisted by the Neelan Thiruchchelwam Trust (NTT).
*Gayanga is an English Literature and Journalism student currently following the diploma at the Sri Lanka College of Journalism. She is a media intern at the Centre for Media and Information Literacy.