Laxmi Murthy

In the present climate of political correctness, an awkward three-letter concoction, s/he, often passes for addressing the 'gender element'. Tacking on a 'her', 'women' and 'girls', to a narrative that is essentially male-focused, however, does not do away with the 'issue' of gender.

The past two decades have also witnessed 'gender mainstreaming', an official policy on equal opportunity that entails the incorporation of equal opportunities for women and men in all policies and structures. This political strategy aimed at achieving gender equity is seemingly more broad-based than policies aimed at achieving equal opportunities for women. Yet, gender mainstreaming is a top-down strategy with a target group of decision makers, as opposed to women's rights campaigns which are most often grassroots movements.

Similarly, talk of 'gender equity', the advocacy of equality, or a belief in basic equal rights and opportunities for all genders within legal, political, social, or corporate establishments, makes the erroneous assumptions that women's rights have already been achieved. In all societies where there is a historical, traditional and sometimes legal bias against the exercise of rights by women, gender equity and gender mainstreaming are not possible without achieving women's rights, because women in general continue to suffer structural disadvantage.

Conversely, even as women continue to bear the brunt of systematic, institutionalised discrimination, movements for change as well as mainstream discourse that has incorporated a gender critique have ensured great visibility for women. It seems as though women are everywhere. Indeed, gender seems to have been taken on board with a vengeance, sometimes to the extent of becoming a fetish. Part of the problem could be traced to the particular place women have begun to occupy in any discussion on the environment. The media could not but reflect this trend.


Environmentalism giving way to ecofeminism in the West in the 1980s was a corollary of the feminist movement itself. Increasingly, the exploitative relationship between nature and human beings began to be viewed through the lens of patriarchal domination. Critiques of patriarchal science, the dominant model of development, with its focus on extraction of natural resources emerged.1 The gender-based division of labour and its impact on nature also came in for study. Indeed, it was implied that women were intrinsically closer to nature and it was 'natural' that they shouldered more responsibility to protect Mother Earth from plunder. Movements like the Chipko Andolan (movement to prevent deforestation led by village women in Garhwal) in the 1970s and Greenham Common (the eponymous women-led protest against nuclear weapons in the early 1980s in England), exemplified and defied this link.

Soon, the proposition that women had an inextricable link with nature was reinforced by international agencies and NGOs, although the rhetoric was based more on gender roles rather than biology. For example, the World Bank holds, 'Women ... play an essential role in the management of natural resources, including soil, water, forests and energy ... and often have a profound traditional and contemporary knowledge of the natural world around them.'2 However, this trend of essentialising women, reinforcing their supposed 'intrinsic' bond with nature has had the effect of laying the burden of dealing with environmental degradation squarely on women's shoulders.

Moreover, the media has also tended to suspend a healthy criticality when it comes to the sacred cows of development, one of which has been micro-credit and self-help groups. Probing beneath the surface often yields the real story. The reality that only a tiny percentage of women own land (75 per cent of women-headed households own less than 0.40 hectares, according to NSS data), increases their vulnerability particularly in situations of disasters. Nitya Rao3 demonstrates the variance in recovery due to land ownership in the recent experiences after the Indian Ocean Tsunami. Studies show that the fishermen community—that is, men— received replacements of their damaged boats and fishing nets running into thousands of rupees. In contrast fisherwomen dependent on selling fish were not compensated for their loss of livelihoods. When International and Local NGOs intervened they used the mechanism of the self-help groups. This has often resulted in women receiving loans to ensure short-term sustainability with little surety of economic recovery. The loans given through the self-help groups have to be repaid whereas the men in most cases were given grants or at least subsidies. Such disparities have been rarely highlighted by the media, which tends to take 'success' stories at face value.

Indeed, in the guise of 'success' stories and stories of change, highlighting the heroic efforts of individual women or groups of women, to deal with the ravaged environment that directly impacts their lives, the media has been responsible for reinforcing the notion that it is women who must not only lead, but be the movement themselves. This begs the question—does this let men off the hook? In order to parse this question, we must go back to some of the basics of journalism.


Much before men and women choose journalism as a career, they are socialised in male and female roles, which are specific to a particular culture. This socialisation influences how the individual journalist, as well as the media as a whole reports on, portrays and treats women. Gender sensitisation helps journalists to identify and understand the attitudes, prejudices, biases and socialisation which often come through in media messages; to recognise and analyse the imbalanced portrayal of women in the media and the marginalisation of women's voices; and also provides skills and techniques to journalists and editors to analyse facts, issues and data from a gender perspective.

Some key factors in sensitising journalists to include the gender perspective has been to ask whether the coverage reflects a holistic view that includes women, and also to pause to think whether gender awareness and sensitivity are built into reporting requirements. Whether or not coverage has given equal space to men's and women's voices, and whether the gender dimension of the story has been explored are by now accepted basics of gender-sensitive reporting. Avoiding reinforcing gender stereotypes, trivialising women's experiences on the one hand or sensationalising them on the other, is another basic tenet. This would be particularly relevant in the use of visuals, both still and broadcast, reinforcing the stereotype of women as victims, particularly during natural calamities, for example. At the same time, while guarding against making women 'invisible', over-representation is a potential hazard.

Using inclusive, gender neutral language but also making sure to specify gender disaggregated data where relevant, is also considered routine in order to weave gender balance and accuracy.

Gender neutral language matters a great deal. Traditionally, in most societies, men have been the dominant force and our language has developed in ways which reflect male dominance, sometimes to the total exclusion of women. Studies4 have shown that the use of the word 'man' ('social man', 'industrial man', and 'political man') evoke, to a statistically significant degree, images of males only—filtering out recognition of women's participation in these major areas of life—whereas the corresponding headings without 'man' evoked images of both males and females.

Gender-neutral language (gender-generic, gender-inclusive, non-sexist, or sex-neutral language) is language that attempts to refer neither to males or females when the sex of the person is irrelevant to the subject. In English-language journalism, gender-neutral language includes the use of gender-neutral pronouns, as well as specific words that reinforce stereotypes of gender roles. Again, in the rush to be gender sensitive and inclusive, the journalist must guard against the over-use of 'she' and 'her', and specifically be cautious when it comes to referring to victims.

Language in any society is dynamic, and the media must not keep up with the changes, but be the fore-runner of coining new language that reflects changing social hierarchies and rigid divisions. Not only will this reach out to a wider audience, it can perform the crucial role of affecting social consciousness in the long run.


So when journalists are increasingly being trained to include the gender element in their stories covering environment, using gender-neutral language and being sensitive to the use of visuals and women's voices, where is the problem?

In the first place, this is simply not being done enough, as several analysts have pointed out, and there is a long way to go before environmental reporting is truly inclusive of gender concerns.5 Second, as detailed above, such an approach, in the name of recognising the crucial link between women and environment, places the entire burden of environmental activism on women. Third, token gender sensitivity tends to miss the more complex stories.

This can be best illustrated through an example of a story that is literally in the air we breathe: the connection between environmental pollution and women's well-being; between chemical corporations and reproductive health.


Dioxin and furans, some of the most toxic chemicals known to humankind, are literally all around us. Dioxins, classified by the World Health Organisation as carcinogenic, are a chemical family with about 75 members, the most toxic of which is (TCDD). Synthesised as a by-product of the chlorine industry, dioxins are also released into the atmosphere by incineration of chlorine-based products such as plastics, paints, etc. They take centuries to degrade, and can undergo continual recycling in the environment.

Dioxin, also called an 'environmental hormone', is an endocrine disruptor, that is, it interferes with the normal functioning of the endocrine system—cells and glands in the body that secrete hormones, the chemical messengers that regulate bodily processes. Experimental evidence shows that elevated levels of the female hormone estrogen can promote breast cell proliferation which can lead to breast cancer. Environmental estrogens or 'xenoestrogens' like dioxin may increase breast cancer risk by binding to and acting through estrogen receptors, thereby imitating natural estrogens.

Back in September 1994, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released a document of human health risks from exposure to dioxin, and warned that dioxin poses a large-scale, long term threat to public health—not only because dioxins are 'likely to present a cancer hazard to humans', but also because they may have adverse effects on development, reproduction and the immune system.

Research in the West has implicated xenoestrogens in higher rates of spontaneous abortion, foetal death and intra-uterine growth retardation, since dioxin is known to block the secretion of the thyroid hormone. In addition to the amount of exposure, the timing seems to be crucial. Exposure during foetal development or during early infancy can have serious implications for future development.

Moreover, pioneering studies on rhesus monkeys in 19936 have shown that exposure to PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) and dioxin increase the risk of endometriosis—a disease in which endometrial cells (normally found lining the uterus) proliferate outside the uterus, causing irregular bleeding, excruciating pain, chronic fatigue and infertility. PCBs and dioxin are known to affect the immune mechanism, which is thought to be involved in endometriosis. Researchers also concluded that human exposure to dioxin is significantly higher than that associated with endometriosis in monkeys and also state that current public health standards are not strong enough to provide guarantees against the potential for dioxin causing endometriosis. What is of concern is that endometriosis, a debilitating disease now affecting an estimated 7-10 per cent of women in their reproductive years, was observed at very low doses of dioxin. In fact, the dose was seven-eight times lower than the 'no-adverse-effect' level proposed by the WHO (1,000 pg/kg/day), indicating that this guideline may not be protective of human health. The limit now being proposed is about 0.1 pg/kg of body weight, although many already have levels far above this limit. Another concern is the effect of 'synergism', whereby even minute quantities of these chemicals can cause immense harm when acting in combination with other chemicals.

The sources of dioxin are all around us, in alarmingly 'common' items of daily use which contain chlorine, for instance, paints, pesticides, detergents, plastics, paper, pharmaceuticals, and PVC. Effluents from factories manufacturing these products pollute water, soil and air, thus entering the food chain in several ways. They are passed on via the natural food chain in constantly higher concentrations. Indeed, scientists believe that organo-chlorines are now present in the body fat of every person on the planet. The treatment of drinking water with chlorine has recently been found to release chlorinated by-products like trihalomethanes, which could be carcinogenic. A long-term move towards source protection would minimise hazardous disinfectant treatment.

Pesticides such as DDT, in use for over 50 years and associated chlorinated pesticides like aldrin, endrin and lindane, remain intact (that is, are not bio-degradable) and have a disastrous tendency to accumulate in fatty tissue. As far back as 1993, a study in Punjab found that 80 per cent of food samples were contaminated by DDT; all 244 examples of milk and its products and all 130 samples of breast milk contained residues of DDT. Though DDT was withdrawn from use in agriculture in 1989, it continues to be used in the public health programme for malaria eradication, since the short-term benefits are prioritised over the long-term risks.

The link between industry and cancer is apparent for those in the media who dig beneath the surface. For instance, in the late 1990s, it became known that Breast Cancer Awareness month in the US which began in

1984 is wholly sponsored by Zeneca Corp, now known as AstraZeneca, a leading pharmaceutical company, makers of tamoxifen, the controversial, yet most widely prescribed breast cancer drug. The focus is on early detection, and there is no mention of prevention. More significantly, there is no talk of the link between environmental and occupational hazards with breast cancer. Zeneca pays for and controls all the radio and TV spots, all the pamphlets, all the information relating to 'Breast Cancer Awareness Month'. There is never any mention that environmental risk factors may induce or promote breast tumours. Ironically, Zeneca earns US$ 300 million each year from sales of the carcinogenic herbicide acetochlor. Since it also earns about US$ 500 million each year marketing tamoxifen, cancer prevention is obviously not a priority.

Breast cancer is a major world-wide public health problem, representing between 3-5 per cent of all deaths in developed countries and 1-3 per cent deaths in developing countries. Cancer registries in India have also observed an increase in incidence of breast cancer over the last two decades. Data released by the Indian Council of Medical Research in 2006 shows that the incidence of breast cancer is high among Indian women in the metropolitan cities of Mumbai, Chennai, and Delhi. Although accurate data is not available in India, it is estimated that one in 22 Indian women is likely to develop breast cancer during her lifetime, though the figure is considerably higher in America.7 According to a study by International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), there will be approximately 2,50,000 new cases of breast cancer in India by 2015. At present, India reports around 1,00,000 new cases annually.8

It is now established that due to women's unique physiology, they may respond differently than men to environmental toxin exposure. Many of these toxins are stored in fat and may reside in the body for long periods of time. Storage of toxins in fat is a problem of greater importance in women because of their higher percentage of body fat and the hormonal changes that occur during pregnancy, lactation, and menopause, which can result in mobilising internal stores of pollutants many years after the initial exposure.9 Yet, the link between environmental pollution and breast cancer is rarely made in the mainstream media, which focuses more on lifestyle factors.

The story of dioxin is not an environmental story alone—the gender element is crucial to exposing it. As scholar and activist Joni Seager argues:

The effects of exposure to pollution cannot be generalized across a population; they will vary considerably with age, class, race, nationality, gender, geographic location and social location. Feminists are particularly active in exploring the ways in which the health impacts of pollution are different for men and for women.10

While declining sperm counts in men has also been correlated with dioxin in several studies in India and the West, there is no doubt that the most widespread impact is on women's health. The timing, prevalence, and rate of particular cancers (especially breast cancer), reproductive disorders, and chronic health impairments are typically very different in women than in their male counterparts.

The link between women's health, pollution and industry, has not been adequately investigated in the Indian media, or by the medical establishment. It has largely been women's organisations and health activists who have been raising these issues and insisting that women's experiences of pollution be disaggregated from the more typically generalised studies of pollution impacts. What the media must realise, is that gender sensitive journalism is good journalism, and the big story will be missed if half of humanity is ignored.


1. Maria Mies, best known for Patriarchy and Accumulation on a World Scale (1986) and Vandana Shiva, with Staying Alive (1989), best represent this stream of thought. Their 1993 book Ecofeminism is a significant dialogue between feminists in the North and South.


3. Rao, Nitya (2005) 'Gender Equality, Land Rights and Household Food Security Discussion of Rice Farming Systems', Economic and Political Weekly, 18—24 June.

4. For example Wendy Martyna's pioneering 1980 work, 'The Psychology of the Generic Masculine', in McConnell-Ginet, R. Borker and N. Furman (eds), Women and Language in Literature and Society. New York: Praeger Publishers.

5. See, for example, Joseph, Ammu (2007) 'The Gender Factor', in Nalini Rajan (ed.), 21st Century Journalism in India, SAGE Publications, and Joni Seager's 'Noticing Gender (or not) in Disasters', Chicago Tribune, 14 Sept 2005.

6. Rier, S., D. Martin, R. Bowman, W. Dmowski and J. Becker (1993) 'Endometriosis in Rhesus Monkeys Following Chronic Exposure to 2,3,7,8-Tetrachlorodibenzo-p-Dioxin', Fundamental and Applied Toxicology, 21: 433—441.

7. 9



10. Seager, Joni (1996) 'Rethinking the Environment: Women and Pollution', Political Environments, 3 (Spring).

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