Unnao rape case shows media lacks a gender lens

A Delhi Court has framed charges against Kuldeep Sengar, the recently expelled Bharatiya Janata Party MLA from Unnao, and his accomplice, on the charges of rape of a minor and her abduction respectively. However, for the rape survivor, justice looks more distant than ever because she is still in hospital, battling for her life following an ‘accident’ -- the collision of her car with a truck.

Despite gaining high visibility in April 2018, the case somehow eluded public attention till it suddenly reappeared with new shocking developments. On July 28, 2019, the vehicle in which the survivor, her lawyer, and her family were traveling in collided with a truck, gravely injuring her and the lawyer and leading to the deaths of her two family members, including her aunt who is an eye-witness in the case. Later it came to light that the survivor was facing continued intimidation from the accused, Sengar, and in fact, she had written about this ordeal in a letter to the Supreme Court, which the judges did not read until after the accident. The police are now investigating the accident for possible foul play.

Since the case came into the limelight last year it was expected that public pressure would force both the authorities and the political party in question, namely BJP, to withdraw their support to Sengar for fear of bad press especially since it was an election year. That didn’t happen. Public attention fizzled out while the discourse surrounding the Kathua rape case, which also came into limelight shortly after that of Unnao, descended into blatant communalisation and politicisation.

The condition of the Unnao victim and her family did not improve in the intervening time. It is clear that the accused MLA and his associates didn’t lose much political clout despite being named in the case early on.

Why is it that this case, along with a few others, despite their outrageous details didn’t come into the public consciousness during the crucial 2019 election season?

Issues of women’s safety deserve top attention and dialogue in all mature democracies. India’s track record on this has been very poor in the past but with better education and rise of sensitivity, it wasn’t wrong to expect this case to evoke greater and prolonged discussions. Yet, the last election season saw issues such as this being completely side-lined in favour of jingoistic nationalism, foreign policy, domestic militancy, NRC and migration. We saw absolutely no pressure on the ruling party for their mishandling of the case. Prime Minister Narendra Modi and other top leaders weren’t made to address it (PM has still not addressed it directly to date). Even the Opposition failed to raise these issues and corner the administration – perhaps because they sensed that the public wasn’t interested.

So why is it like that? Why doesn’t the media do enough in this regard?

Journalist Neha Dixit recently wrote in The National: “Male Agendas still form the bedrock of public discourse. Media Outlets refuse to treat women and other groups as equal participants in the nation and its politics”. She recalled an incident in her article about coming to know of the existence of a blatant pay gap for female cooks employed by the Bihar government, who she said, were paid a tenth of the minimum wage. She reported this to her editor in a national magazine and his reply was: “Great, but what about the Pulwama effect?”. This shows what the priorities of the media are.

Gender issues, inequality and women’s safety aren’t as important as other stories of ‘national interest’; they aren’t considered part of the national agenda. Political parties try to deflect attention from it because they are formed and manned majorly by men whose interests aren’t focused on female empowerment. It is easy to understand their apathy, although it is not acceptable. However, it is completely inexcusable for big media, which influences thousands of people, to play along with the story.

Media’s failure in this respect is an important reason why political parties were able to avoid addressing it during the hard-fought 2019 election campaign. At the time of BJP’s ‘main bhi chowkidar’ campaign, the main accused of the Unnao rape case was still an MLA and in the membership rolls of the BJP. He continued to draw support from within the party and used his political clout to intimidate the young survivor.

An example from the Congress will be its decision to re-induct men who were accused by their national spokesperson, Priyanka Chaturvedi, of misbehaving with her. The party re-inducted them despite her protests. Chaturvedi ended up leaving the party for good and Congress didn’t seem to suffer too much on that count, which is just like how the BJP didn’t lose any votes in its handling of the Unnao case. Voting for or against both these parties was for ‘greater’ issues and ideological reasons and women’s safety and gender inequality weren’t part of it.

It’s worth delving into why the media fails in highlighting these issues appropriately. A recent report on the Indian media found that only 26.3, 20.9, 13.6 per cent of the top jobs in publications were held by women at online portals, TV channels and in magazines respectively. The survey found that women constituted only 1/4th of the published writers in the English dailies surveyed. Female representation in Hindi newspapers was even worse with only 11 percent of the articles written by women being published (no survey was done for other language dailies). It was also found that women got to write less than the general average on topics concerning politics, and national security. Gender issues-related topics amounted to three percent of all the articles published. The report found that the representation of women was low in TV discussion panels as well.

Stories about women often get either get relegated or wrongly portrayed. Lack of strong exposure to the female perspective makes society insensitive to the issues concerning women and induces gross indifference which gets reflected in the attitude of political parties and the government in power.

Communalisation and the politicisation of societal issues like rape and murder can thus be considered as a symptom of this problem, namely, the lack of ‘gender lens’ in the media. Falsely spinning issues concerning the woman and giving it another peg ends up distracting or diverting attention of the community at large. This also serves the agenda of male-dominated, patriarchal political parties who can continue to be oblivious or indifferent to real issues concerning women.

In the Unnao case, everyone’s attention was called on the case only when the news of the survivor’s father’s death (in police custody) became known. The media’s inability to stay focused on the actual subject, namely, the survivor herself and her struggles allowed the accused time and space to continue the apparent intimidation. This finally stopped only with the car crash suffered by her.

It’s time to correct our lens and start taking a more serious approach to dealing with issues of this nature.

(Aaron Nedumparambill is an aspiring writer who takes a keen interest in current affairs)

The views expressed above are the author’s own. They do not necessarily reflect the views of DH.

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