On a balmy November morning, standing in the middle of a refurbished colonial building in downtown Yangon, members of the International Media Support (IMS)-Fojo Institute and Myanmar Women Journalist’s Society shared their findings about the position of women in Myanmar’s media landscape. There was no good news.

The study, which analysed the content of 49 Burmese and ethnic language media outlets in the country over the course of a month, found that over 80% of sources in local Myanmar media are men—and that was even after including the country’s de facto leader, Aung San Suu Kyi.

According to Ellie Swindon, IMS-Fojo Myanmar’s gender advisor, the grim results were not entirely unexpected. And it’s not just Myanmar that’s doing so poorly; the results of their study aren’t too far off the conclusions of similar studies in the rest of Southeast Asia.

Women in leadership positions

IMS-Fojo’s study found that women in positions of authority—such as police or military officers, religious figures, scientists, or even athletes—represented less than 1% of all sources quoted in the media.

While this may not represent the actual number of women in these positions, it’s symptomatic of the lack of women in leadership positions in Southeast Asia as a whole, says Christina Liew, an executive board member and officer of the UN Women Singapore Committee.

“While unfortunate, the representation of women in the media is often reflective of their roles and visibility in real life,” Liew says. “There are fewer women in senior leadership roles in government, business, and other positions of power. So perhaps it should not be surprising that women are under-represented in such roles in the media.”

“The invisibility of any group renders them powerless”

Such a lack of representation has significant repercussions. It could, Liew says, perpetuate a counterproductive image of women as being of a lower status in society.

“The inclusion of women’s voices are crucial to cultural and mindset changes,” she says. “Unless women are on equal footing with men as the source of what is consumed in popular culture, there will never be accurate portrayals or progressive messaging in media. The invisibility of any group renders them powerless.”

Liew further explains that even the most objective journalism is inherently done through someone’s lens—meaning the writer’s personal experiences end up impacting the way a story can be presented, or even what stories or issues are discussed in the media.

“So when women are excluded from the credibility of established media, or the gravitas of public office, or other such platforms, their absence by definition means that narrative is skewed and inaccurate,” Liew says. “Women have to shape their own story, even when there are dissenting voices amongst women themselves. Just like racial minorities need to represent their own cultures and give meaning to their place in time, women need to be heard themselves and not spoken for.”

Women as victims

There was only one area in which women in Myanmar outnumbered men as sources: as victims.

According to the study, women are “eight times more likely to be labeled a victim/survivor than men”. Further, the study found that while only 1% of stories surveyed were about gender-based violence, 44% of those stories included women as a source, enforcing the notion that women are more often approached for their personal experiences rather than as authoritative figures or experts.

This, the study points out, is an imbalance that extends beyond Southeast Asia.

Myanmar Women - New Naratif
Women are often portrayed in the media as passive victims, rather than active decision-makers and participants. Credit: Lifebrary / Shutterstock.com

“Global media monitoring studies show that only 13% of conflict reporting includes women as subjects/sources, often portraying them as nameless, passive victims,” it says. “In contrast, men are displayed as active figures, engaged in all sorts of activities from armed combat to political debate.”

Such a lack of balance leads to what the study calls “a reinforcement of stereotypes”, with females more frequently being portrayed as victims, while men remain as authority figures.

Filling the gap

Recognising early on in their study that there was an unbalanced portrayal of women in the Burmese media, the IMS-Fojo Institute decided that, beyond the research, there was an opportunity to take action.

“We wanted to have [an] action and advocacy strategy around [the] research itself so that it would lead to some kind of behavioural or attitude change in the sector, while also making it web-based so that it could be used as tool for reporters,” says Swindon.

The organisation then launched the #FillTheGap campaign, releasing an online database of women experts based in Myanmar.

“One of the reactions we got from people while doing the study was, ‘Well, we would like to interview women but there aren’t any available,’” says Swindon. “Clearly we knew that wasn’t true, so in response we started recording all the female experts and specialists we came across and who were previously used by reporters.”

The database—which also allows anyone to submit names and contact information of women experts working in Myanmar and on Myanmar-related issues—has grown to over 135 women, including those from non-governmental organisations, private enterprise, government, media, ethnic minority organisations and beyond.

While the database is growing at a slower pace than when it was upon first being established, names are still being added and web traffic indicates people are still referencing the page, Swindon says.

“It’s become a good starting point and resource for those who say there are no female experts,” says Swindon.

Gaps across the region

While the initiative is the first of its kind in Myanmar, other women-led initiatives combating the gender imbalance in the media have popped up across the region in recent years, addressing the dearth of women both as sources and producers.  

Women Photograph, an international organisation launched in 2017, has compiled a list of over 700 women and non-binary photographers in over 90 countries. The database currently has over 50 women photographers being listed as based in Southeast Asia.

“Photojournalists are responsible for how we see the rest of the world—it’s how we access imagery of people we may never meet and places we may never visit,” said Women Photographer founder Daniella Zalcman in an interview with photography platform 500px.  “If we want to document those people and places with nuance and sensitivity, we need to be doing it as a diverse community of storytellers.”

Women Unlimited launched in Indonesia in 2016 as part of a women’s leadership programme initiated by Hivos South East Asia, a Dutch-based organization that focuses on development in frontier markets. The project features profiles of local women leaders from various fields of science and expertise. The website has different sections such as “People”, “Power”, and “Rights” that direct visitors to databases of women with verified expertise on a wide range of subjects.  

“The more you get used to women as a source of thought leadership, the more you’ll get used to women being a source of authority”

Then there’s the Singapore-based Keynote Asia Women Speakers, which provides a diverse database of women public speakers and experts available in the region. The initiative, co-founder Mette Johansson says, came after she and some of her fellow women colleagues found themselves overwhelmed by requests to participate in panels at different events. While looking for alternative speakers to take their place, they were shocked at the lack of representation for women.

“Within a few minutes of talking and brainstorming we Googled ‘women speakers’ and didn’t see anything. Especially for Asia, the results were really poor,” Johansson says. “So we decided we wanted to create first directory of women speakers.”

On top of this directory, the group also conducts public speaking lessons for women in the region. “It’s about bringing diversity and women’s stories to stages. We are actually giving women voice, and by giving women voices you help build diversity,” Johansson says. “The more you get used to women as a source of thought leadership, the more you’ll get used to women being a source of authority—both in media and society.”

Johansson says that the group has also found unexpected allies among men in the region. “We have men who are working hand-in-hand with us on many different levels,” she says. “In fact ten of the top male speakers are supporting [this] initiative and have said they won’t join panel discussions unless women are also speaking.”

The project has taken off so much that the group is now planning to launch a sister site in Europe by the end of 2018. “We’re bringing diversity to the stage around the world,” Johansson says. “And we’re not just doing this for established speakers, but we’re working to training new generation of speakers, too.”

Meanwhile, advocates in countries like Myanmar say it will take time to close the gender gap and tackle stereotypes in the media. But Swindon feels that some progress has been made.

“We’re trying to reach out and have conversations and create dialogue with media as a starting point, then we will be continuously monitoring so that we continue to have dialogue,” she says. “Whether they’re cooperative or not, we will at least have a tool to demonstrate where their strengths and weaknesses lie, and hopefully it will be an ongoing effort for everyone.”

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Victoria Milko is a multimedia journalist based in Myanmar. She is currently an editor at Frontier Myanmar, with her work also found in The Washington Post, NPR, and others.