We look at every story from a gender lens perspective, says its founder Bhanupriya Rao.
BEHANBOX, a women-led organisation, founded by researcher and writer Bhanupriya Rao, is an online media platform that seeks to highlight the inherent inequalities in society through its reporting from a gender lens perspective. Rao is an experienced journalist who has worked in the areas of policy and governance among grassroots organisations. BehanBox (Voices of Sisters), born during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, brings together the voices of women and gender-diverse persons by highlighting the existing and widening gender gaps with a look at laws, policies and data.
The Leaflet spoke to its founder to find out more about its work.
Q: How did you come up with the idea of BehanBox?
A: I used to work with grassroots organisations looking at how policy and governance affect the lived experiences of people. What I have understood from my experience is that everything is an issue of governance. If something worked, it means the government has worked. If it does not, it is the failure of policy and law, and the implementation of it. That also made me realise that there were problems existing at the grassroots level and even though they were articulated, the space to address them was shrinking.
My experience in reporting also taught me that understanding issues from a gender lens, and that problems affect each community differently, were completely missing from mainstream media discourse.
I wanted to talk about a host of issues through a gender-lens discourse. That way, we could amplify voices and perspectives on a diverse range of issues. Since I used to write on women in grassroots governance, policy and law, the issue of coming up with a platform that would address this gender gap was simmering in my head. That is when the COVID-19 pandemic struck, and the inherent inequalities with multiple marginalisations became aggravated. So, in 2020, we started reporting and around July, some of our big stories were reported.
What I have understood from my experience is that everything is an issue of governance. If something worked, it means the government has worked. If it does not, it is the failure of policy and law, and the implementation of it.
BehanBox as a platform made me realise that there was an audience that wanted us to address issues through a gender lens. We started off with the perspective that these issues needed to be highlighted for states to take action and for a change in governance.
Now, a lot of people ask me why the name BehanBox? I was born in south India but grew up in the northern part of India. Growing up, it was a routine to call us friends ‘Behan’ (sister) because it resonated with a shared culture and struggle against patriarchy and systems. There is a shared camaraderie across multiple marginalisations. We wanted our name to reflect sisterhood.
In July, we will be two years old, and I think we are doing a good job in exposing the existing gaps in the society.
Q: How do you process a story?
A: Let me tell you how we arrive at a typical BehanBox story. For us, everything is a gendered issue. We do not categorise gender as issues concerning women and those that do not concern women. For us, the meaning of gender reflects diversity. We have reported on a range of issues such as rights of disabled persons, land and labour rights, and minority rights. We report a lot about agriculture and climate change, and so on. It is not just about women’s issues. Please look at the anti-encroachment drive story from Jahangirpuri. Most media platforms reported it from a communal angle, which is not incorrect. But we covered it from a gender lens, that is, we reported that the State’s arbitrary action and those kinds of punitive measures in a communally motivated manner resulted in double jeopardy for the women of those communities that have been targeted.
Further, some of our stories need ground reporting. We are a very small team, and we work a lot with freelancers and independent journalists. We commission them. But even when we commission them, we discuss the outline of the story because applying a gender lens to stories is still very new to India.
We focus a lot of data to show you the scale of the problem. Most importantly, we refer to the data to show you the way the data is available, collected or presented is problematic.
Another point: when we apply a gender lens to stories, we apply it to existing policies and laws because, as I said, anything that is a deficit, is a deficit in governance. Thus, it is a collective problem that states and society need to solve. Therefore, we have a very strong law and policy focus.
Q: Could you tell us about investigative reporting?
Another was how states had made certain promises to ASHA workers but have failed to deliver them, including those made during the COVID-19 pandemic. These stories require us to find certain data that is publicly not available. On ASHA workers, we met ASHA Workers’ Unions across 16 states, and dug up the data on the debts they are in, whether the states have paid them the COVID-19 incentive of Rs. 1,000 and whether they have been given personal protective equipment kits. Our investigation concluded that most states have not paid ASHA workers for these incentives (Promised, Mostly Never Paid: Rs 1,000 COVID Wage To Million Health Workers). We then compiled that data.
A: This is a very important question. As you know, we focus a lot of data to show you the scale of the problem. Most importantly, we refer to the data to show you the way the data is available, collected or presented is problematic.
Let’s take the example of NCRB. It collects data strictly by gender-binary standards. Even if you look at data on gender-based violence, they are not collecting data on IPV faced by disabled persons and the LGBTQI community. The experiences faced by members of the LGBTQI community on IPV are different from those of other communities. There is no intersectionality in collecting data.
In our stories, we actually explain the reasons why there is no data available. But the absence of data does not mean the absence of the problem. However, the absence of data is also a problem. There is hardly any reporting on the IPV faced by disabled persons and the LGBTQI community. The government does not collect data on this.
There is a challenge in reporting such cases; for instance, looking at the NCRB data on transgenders, it says only 22 transgenders committed suicide. There is a background explanation on underreporting here. It is not easy to come out and acknowledge your gender identity and sexual orientation because there are restrictions based on economic background, cultural issues, and stereotyping. All this needs to be explained to the readers in such stories.
The transgender community does not recognise the disabled community and vice-versa, and that is why it becomes difficult for someone who falls within its intersection to fit in either of the two.
So, when the data is available, we present it to readers and make them understand the importance of an issue. When the data is not available, we try to explain to them the background reasons behind its non-availability.
Q: Is there anything that is core to the concept of covering stories from a gender lens perspective?
A: Yes, the intersectionality. Our entire disability series is based on both women, and those who identify as queers and the intersection. When we did a story on trans-disabled people, we already knew there is hardly any policy for them, but there is another problem here and that is with communities. The transgender community does not recognise the disabled community and vice-versa, and that is why it becomes difficult for someone who falls within its intersection to fit in either of the two.
This also means that a lot of advocacy, which is needed in terms of policy for this unique kind of marginalisation, is very difficult because neither of the communities are advocating for the other. Similarly, for a disabled person, the experience of IPV is different from the experience of a queer-disabled person.
Then, there is caste. Our stories have covered how access to justice for sexual harassment survivors is different for upper-caste women living in urban areas and Dalit women living in rural areas. All these stories show how different aspects are interacting with each other. That is intersectionality.
Q: Every state has some specific practice that is not addressed. Like witchcraft is prevalent in Jharkhand. Do you cover state-specific stories as well? Is there any specific state where women are the most underprivileged?
A: We have not covered the practice of witchcraft in Jharkhand, but that is on our agenda. We do cover state-specific issues and that is why we actually exist. We want to cover issues that concern rural and semi-urban India. You cannot see issues because of the tyranny of distance. There are places with informational black holes, and those are the places and their issues that we need to cover.
Our entire land rights series is from Gujarat. Then, there are stories on land rights for Adivasis (tribal) women of Jharkhand. They follow unwritten customary land laws where such rights are not extended to women. We talked to tribal women leaders, who have been campaigning for land rights, for our story. They also shared some horrifying incidents, such as a Santhal Adivasi woman who was tied to a bullock and made to till the field by the village men because she used the plough, which is forbidden among the Adivasis.
For the Northeast, we covered Manipur, where women remain underrepresented in electoral politics. In Darjeeling, we covered how herbicides in tea gardens are actually harming women and tea-plantation workers. In Punjab, we shared how Dalit women are held on bonded labour in Mansa and Sangrur. Bonded labour is illegal, but it exists in so many forms that it makes it difficult to cover it within the law. For instance, we reported on how Dalit women in Punjab, who are dung scavengers, are in a continuous cycle of debt traps and poverty. They do not have any option but to continue their job. We argue that bonded labour should be re-defined to expand the scope of the law for newer definitions to fit in. All these are state-specific issues.
In the future, we will look at gender violence in Uttar Pradesh and Haryana. We will also have a series on the effects of price rise and inflation on specific communities among women.
There is a notion that some states are developed in terms of gender and others are not. That is just not true. Every state has some form of deficit, and there are various indicators, including data, to show that.
Also, I want to address that there is a notion that some states are developed in terms of gender and others are not. That is just not true. Let’s take the example of political representations. States like Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, and Haryana have more women in the Assemblies and Parliament than southern states like Kerala and Tamil Nadu. Kerala will rank very low in women’s representation in politics even though it is hailed as a progressive state. In fact, Kerala is one of the states with the highest dowry deaths. The rate of offences like stalking and street harassment is high in that state.
In terms of gender-based violence, especially IPV, states like Karnataka and Andhra top the chart, according to the findings of the National Family Health Survey. Then, look at Manipur: women have been at the forefront of the struggle against the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958, but how many women make it to the legislative assembly? In the 12th Manipur Legislative Assembly Elections, only five women have been elected [to the 60-member Assembly]. This is the highest so far.
So, every state has some form of deficit, and there are various indicators, including data, to show that. That is why it is important to look at the overall picture.
Q: Caste, as you have mentioned, is a prevalent factor leading to discrimination. Recently, BehanBox covered a story on the rise of child marriage and minor pregnancies in Tamil Nadu. Such stories require not just reportage but also intervention.
A: That particular article was written by an activist, Shalin Maria Lawerance, who has long worked on stopping child marriages.
The issue with child marriage is that people miss out on intersectionality here. People think it is just because of debt and poverty. That is true, but child marriage is also driven by caste.
In Tamil Nadu, the dominant caste marries off their young and minor girls because they fear inter-caste marriage will contaminate their culture. Whereas, Dalit families marry their girls because they fear violence which is very prevalent among Dalit women and children. In this case, it is Shalin who has herself intervened in this case as a campaigner. That is why this story is a part of our series called ‘As I see it,’ which is a first-person narrative of the person who is actually involved in this case and covers the story from their perspective.
In terms of intervention, we try to shine the spotlight on how states are failing their people. But as a reporting platform, we only show the gaps and deficits in policy and law. We try to raise awareness but, as a media organisation, do not take an activist stand. Also, in many cases, intervention cannot happen because of the sensitivity of the case. It is better for the right authority to intervene in such cases.
A: There are several ways. But, the first and foremost rule of any journalism, especially the kind of journalism we do, is to develop an empathic storytelling approach. You cannot be a vulture when you are talking about marginalised people and their experiences of oppression. It is not right to scavenge their experiences for the growth of your journalism.
In Tamil Nadu, the dominant caste marries off their young and minor girls because they fear inter-caste marriage will contaminate their culture. Whereas, Dalit families marry their girls because they fear violence which is very prevalent among Dalit women and children.
In our disability series, we dealt with different forms of disability. It is not just physical. There are also psycho-social and intellectual disabilities. People reporting on these stories are required to be extra sensitive. They do not need to come from an emotion of pity, but require us to look at these people as individuals with agency. For our disability series, we engaged with an organisation, Rising Flame that works in that space, and conducted a workshop to train journalists on how to approach persons with different disabilities. Working with such an organisation helps us fill the gap we miss out on.
Also, we train our journalists, both independent and in-house, to develop trust. It is important that we do not push people. If a person says they are not comfortable sharing their story, we do not ask them any further questions. There are certain practices we strictly follow. In any of our stories, we do not show the face of a child. All these practices allow us to maintain the standards of ethical journalism.
Q: We talked about cases where data is not available but the issue needs to be reported. Since BehanBox does a lot of ground reporting, do you, perhaps, train these communities to tell their stories? This could be a way of collecting and compiling data on issues that are underreported.
A: In some instances, we follow this approach because we believe the communities should be able to tell their stories. For instance, if there is a story concerning tribal women, we try to find a journalist belonging to that community because they will be able to apply a lens that an urban journalist might completely miss out on.
That is also why we work with a lot of local women collectives in a district or a group of districts. They collect stories for us and report them in their local language. That is an approach we have followed in some stories. But, generally, we do not train local communities at present. In the future, we aim to train the local communities to make them able to articulate their issues, as what [grassroots feminist news network] Khabar Lahariya has been doing for the last 20 years. This is also the future of ethical journalism; to train the communities to amplify their voices.
Q: Where do you see BehanBox in the future? Also, any suggestions for those who want to learn the gender lens perspective of reporting?
A: We aim to bring certain gender equality in the future. Therefore, we continue to do the form of reporting we are doing right now. As a suggestion, I think it’s important to develop sensitivity. I also think it is important to report an issue with an open mind.
This is the future of ethical journalism; to train the communities to amplify their voices.
Also, as journalists, we should keep a good hold of policies and laws. At the end of the day, any form of journalism must hold the government accountable.