Myanmar’s state-run media is accustomed to being mocked for its fusty, tone-deaf coverage of pressing issues, but the government’s flagship English language daily, Global New Light of Myanmar, managed to outdo itself with a recent editorial defending the country’s record on gender equality.
“All Myanmar ethnic [groups] give equal status and treatment to men and women,” declared the male author, who went on to list doing domestic chores as one of a wife’s five duties to her husband.
“Women are treated not as weaker sex but only as fairer gender,” he added. “Therefore certain jobs, works and places are regarded as not suitable for fairer gender.”
It’s not just government newspapers that portray women in a problematic way; Myanmar’s nascent private media sector is also failing in this area, activists say, even by the already low standards set in the rest of the world.
Changing the narrative
But a new campaign aims to tackle this imbalance by encouraging reporters to use more female sources, and to resist falling back on gender stereotypes in their stories.
The Gender in Myanmar News project, backed by International Media Support and the Myanmar Women Journalists Society, has launched a crowdsourced database of contact details for female experts who reporters can approach for comment.
The new tool lists 150 women working in sectors from business, law, and health to foreign policy, urban development, and economics, meaning “there is no longer an excuse to not interview a woman for a story,” the group says on its website.
“Newsrooms need to put in extra effort to get women sources,” Tin Zar Aung, a media trainer at the nonprofit Internews who is listed on the database, tells Splice. “It’s an automatic response for reporters; when they think about sources they’re thinking about men.”
To reverse the gender imbalance in Myanmar's news coverage, the Gender in Myanmar News project launched a database of women who are experts in their fields. By @jershcarroll
The numbers don’t lie
The project has also published its own research to help drive home its point. Nandar, who goes by one name, is a member of the research team who helped sift through 15 days of coverage from June last year in print, online and broadcast. She tells Splice she came across many stories that were “very, very gender biased and deeply sexist, the language was very sexist.”
The findings, which cover more than 40 local-language outlets, show that men make up 80% of sources quoted or referred to in Myanmar news stories while women comprise just 16%. (For the remaining 4% the source’s gender wasn’t stated in the story.)
This is the first time anyone has collected this kind of data in Myanmar, where severe censorship suffocated private media for decades until 2012. The new figures put the country’s emerging newsrooms below the global average of 24% — and the Asia average of 20% — for female sources.
When women’s voices are included in news media, reporters often use them to support stereotypes, Ellie Swindon, International Media Support’s gender advisor for Myanmar, tells Splice.
The team’s research found, for example, that women are eight times more likely than men to be portrayed as victims, while men are 12 times more likely to be quoted as an expert or commentator.
This reinforces a “pattern of subordinating women’s voices, rather than giving them agency,” Swindon says.
While it is true that men dominate a lot of the organizations journalists need to approach for comment or, as Swindon says, are “controlled by male voices,” the database shows there are plenty of female sources available for reporters who want to challenge this power imbalance, rather than let it dictate whose voices take precedence in their coverage.
But Swindon notes that even when women make up the majority of available sources reporters still tend to turn to men to explain what’s happening. One newspaper story she came across about a garment factory protest quoted two male strikers and one woman, even though 90 percent of Myanmar’s garment workers are female.
The same story featured a picture of 14 women, demonstrating another key finding of the research: that women are more likely to be seen than heard in news media.
This is a common theme in similar research from the Global Media Monitoring Project, which takes place every five years and covers more than 100 countries. The research Swindon and Nandar helped to conduct followed the same methodology, which they hope will lay the groundwork for Myanmar to join the next global study in 2020.
That may help newsrooms start to tackle their gender problem in sourcing, but improving the overall quality of journalism in a country where the Fourth Estate has been enfeebled for decades is also key, Swindon adds.
“When you promote good quality journalism, you’re promoting investigations into as many sides of the story as possible,” she says. “And if you open your eyes and look around, then you’ll see that it’s not just a story about men.”