Director, Media Programs
For nearly 30 years, PRB’s Women’s Edition has trained, connected, and championed women journalists from around the world covering news about health and population. The fellowship program has long been supported by the U.S. Agency for International Development, most recently through the Policy, Advocacy, and Communication Enhanced for Population and Reproductive Health (PACE) project. In more than six years under PACE, Women’s Edition evolved to meet changing media and public health landscapes, with an increased focus on data-driven reporting that spotlights marginalized communities facing intersecting challenges. The program transformed its recruitment practices to diversify its fellow groups, organized innovative virtual programming in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, added professional development and collaboration opportunities to its suite of activities, and broadened its thematic scope to include urgent questions around global health and security.
But the program’s animating values have remained consistent: to focus media attention on women’s perspectives and experiences, and to give women journalists resources and opportunities to help them stake a larger—and, ultimately, equal—claim in newsrooms and in newsprint. As we look forward and adapt the program to new frontiers, we also learn from the foundational elements that make Women’s Edition a unique and needed source of support for news coverage by and about women.
This feature explores those lessons through one of the program’s recent additions: a cross-border reporting grant that enabled a team of fellows to reveal linkages between women’s health and environmental degradation in the Sundarbans, a vast, isolated, and resource-rich region shared by Bangladesh and India. This case study highlights approaches that have strengthened the representation and impact of women journalists reporting on population dynamics, reproductive health, and multisectoral development across the globe.
Swati Bhattacharjee is a senior assistant editor at Anandabazar Patrika, a Bengali-language daily newspaper that marked its 100th anniversary this year. Based in Kolkata, near India’s eastern border, Bhattacharjee writes editorials and assigns articles to contributors on a range of topics. But her passion lies in investigating “poverty alleviation and gender justice,” especially in less-covered rural areas of India, and reporting through “the eyes of the people who are living in the margins of society.” A Women’s Edition fellow since 2020, Bhattacharjee joined the program during its transition to virtual training, when its thematic focus was the gendered effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Jesmin “Papri” Akter is a freelance reporter based in Dhaka, Bangladesh, where she has worked mainly in online and multimedia journalism for more than a decade. Previously a diplomatic correspondent, she prefers her current focus on migration and the environment honed under Women’s Edition, and she reports in Bengali for Radio Free Asia, among other outlets. Akter joined the fellowship during a weeklong, in-person workshop in Kathmandu, Nepal, in 2019, and has remained committed to the program during its pandemic repositioning. “My knowledge and reporting style changed a lot since being admitted to Women’s Edition,” Akter said, crediting the program with teaching her to “think big.”
In 2021, these two fellows teamed up on a reporting project called “Bitter Salt: How Rising Salinity Affects Women in the Sundarbans.” Their partnership, which culminated in a series of Bengali-language stories published in two outlets from both sides of the Bangladesh-India border, illustrates the core components of Women’s Edition in practice. It also showcases the urgency of dedicated investment in women journalists and women’s stories.
While some aspects of Women’s Edition—including its focal theme—change annually, the program’s fostering of regional peer networks is one of its central pillars, and one of the most durable benefits for fellows. Peer networks provide a safety net, a sounding board, and a source of encouragement for Women’s Edition fellows. “As working journalists, we know that cross-fertilization of ideas is helpful,” said Bhattacharjee. “That’s how you develop your networks…and you learn from each other’s experiences.”
For much of the program’s history, connections between fellows were forged organically during intensive in-person workshops. Fellows would share meals, swap stories and jokes about the hardships and rewards of their work, and press guest speakers and experts for straight answers during group Q&A sessions. Pivoting to an all-virtual training model in 2020 meant that peer learning had to be cultivated intentionally, and over a longer period. Today, dedicated monthly peer sessions on Zoom include breakout rooms where fellows can refine story ideas and exchange contacts and tips. “The peer meetings are a good time for us to discuss the issues in different countries and to share ideas and knowledge and difficulties,” said Akter.
Bhattacharjee agreed that sharing experiences with other fellows helped strengthen the journalists’ reporting and create “an enabling sphere” for improved work.
While the media landscape across countries can differ dramatically, some challenges are common for journalists everywhere. One of these is access to sources—especially experts—who may be mistrustful of the media, unfamiliar or uncomfortable with journalistic practices, or too busy with their own deadlines to meet anyone else’s.
Women’s Edition leverages PRB’s and PACE’s rosters of experts across sectors and serves as a pipeline for data, research, and context around program themes. The virtual training model enhances this benefit: Though fellows are no longer able to engage in face-to-face dialogue with experts, the diversity of available experts has increased. Since location and travel time are no longer barriers, training sessions may now feature speakers from Germany, Pakistan, Senegal, and the United States in the same online classroom.
“The program has identified the leading experts in this area, and we realize that this can only happen after a lot of research on who has intimate knowledge on the gender aspects of climate change. Hence we could get expert quotes with relative ease,” said Bhattacharjee.
To enhance collaboration among fellows and increase the impact of their news stories, Women’s Edition added a cross-border grant opportunity in 2021, allowing journalists to apply for funding to support deep coverage of topics with international importance.
Bhattacharjee and Akter were among the first fellows to apply, envisioning work in the Sundarbans, which spans 10,000 square kilometers and encompasses forests, islands, three major rivers, and four UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Known for its remarkable biodiversity, the Sundarbans is now threatened by climate change and a rapidly growing human population.3
The story presented—both literally and figuratively—too much ground to cover. And since the Sundarbans is shared by two countries, the pair knew their story would be enriched by perspectives and connections on both sides of the border. “What especially attracted us was that we need to find out how in these two countries, which of course have two different governments…how were these governments and health systems reacting to the issue?” said Bhattacharjee.
Many urgent challenges transcend geographic, socioeconomic, and political boundaries, and merit cross-border information sharing and news coverage. Tracking and health systems response for infectious disease is one example, illustrated by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Conflict and security, environmental conservation, economic shifts, supply chain management, and migration are others on a growing list. Cross-border newsgathering and cooperation among journalists allow media to effectively report on complex topics and provide the public and decisionmakers with the context needed to inform constructive action.
Women’s Edition has, since its inception, focused on elevating women’s stories. Each year’s fellowship program is structured around a health and population theme, and the program’s evidence-based training, expert presentations, independent coaching, and storytelling grants hew to that theme. In recent years, program themes have aligned with dominant news stories or current events while still directing attention to new narratives.
In 2020, programming unpacked the effects of COVID-19 on women, including the ways in which health system shocks deepen existing inequities in health care. “[Women’s] needs were being easily overshadowed during the pandemic,” said Akter. Women’s health in particular, “which [is] always very neglected in countries like Bangladesh,” was invisible across news media, she added.
In 2021, the fellowship focused on the disproportionate effects of climate change on women and explored land and natural resource access, as well as how a dearth of women in leadership roles inhibits equitable decision-making and how climate-linked threats to women impact whole communities. Women’s Edition “has come as a huge support for many of us journalists who are writing on slightly unusual subjects and newer subjects trying to explore the crisis happening at the margins,” said Bhattacharjee.
Participation in Women’s Edition often permanently reorients fellows’ reporting: Years and even decades after their fellowships, many alumnae continue to publish stories that prominently feature women’s perspectives and challenge norms and conventions related to gender. And that shift can change minds within newsrooms. “This gender lens helped my colleagues also to change their directions and work,” said Akter. “Many of our colleagues from different media outlets have contacted me on how to write and report stories about women in the coastal areas” as well as on climate change and pandemic response.
Bhattacharjee agreed. “Many people call me up to say we have been living in the Sundarbans all our lives and we don’t know that women here are suffering so frightfully from these health problems,” she said. One of the reasons gender inequities persist, according to Bhattacharjee, is that they don’t get enough attention. “We don’t have enough stories on women and how they are being impacted, so there is no policy response.”
During their reporting for the Bitter Salt series, Akter and Bhattacharjee witnessed the practical consequences of decision-making that fails to account for women’s experiences. “All this starts from a lack of gender-sensitive stories, and in our small way we trying to counteract that by putting out our stories,” Bhattacharjee said. “The gender lens is not a different lens, it is just a wider lens that allows us to capture the true picture of what is happening out there.”
While the fragility of the traditional media business model—and the industry-wide cutbacks that have affected newsgathering and production—are not new or unique to any place, they compound a disadvantage already faced by women journalists. Stereotypes linked to traditional gender roles affect how women are portrayed in news stories, and women are paid less than their male colleagues for comparable newsroom jobs almost universally.4
Akter and Bhattacharjee have experienced these disparities. “In Bangladesh, the opportunities for female journalists are not the same as male journalists, and funding is the biggest problem we face while reporting,” Akter said.
Reporting grants made available through Women’s Edition help fill the resource gap that holds women journalists back.
Bhattacharjee explained that cutbacks in many news organizations are making reporting from the margins exceedingly difficult. This is where journalism grants, such as those offered by Women’s Edition, can play a critical role. The coastal areas covered in their “Bitter Salt” stories required travel by boat and across long distances, which cost time and money. Especially when reporting on a controversial or personal topic, being able to spend time with sources and visit a reporting site multiple times improves the accuracy and nuance of a story, but news organizations rarely support that process. “…You have to invest a lot in those relationships,” said Bhattacharjee. “Without good relationships there is no good journalism.”
In their reporting grant pitch to Women’s Edition, Akter and Bhattacharjee proposed to explore how women in coastal communities in the Sundarbans region were affected by climate change, and how the governments of Bangladesh and India were responding to the manifold consequences of this change, including loss of livelihood, lack of access to clean water, and chronic health problems.
In preparation for their series, the fellows gathered evidence that rising salinity in the water and soil in coastal areas coincided with a high number of cases of pelvic inflammation, skin disease, and reproductive tract ailments that led to hysterectomies among coastal women. They also observed both devastation and innovation in the work traditionally done by women, including farming of water-reliant crops such as rice.
“In our stories, Jesmin [Akter] and I were looking at two systems through the gender lens,” said Bhattacharjee. “One was how people and communities cope after huge disasters, like repeated cyclones that the Sundarbans constantly faces. The second is the response of public health systems and other governmental systems, which often ignore the needs of women. We need to get the stories of women out so we can show the reader how women are being affected deeper—their wounds are deeper…”
But commitment to their story didn’t eliminate barriers to reporting. In addition to the twin hurdles of accessing remote areas and earning the trust of local women, Akter and Bhattacharjee were exploring health effects that hadn’t been thoroughly studied, and among people who were largely ignored due to their economic and social status and location. “This story was unique in the connections it made. It linked climate change to reproductive health quite tangibly, and it argued for the need to integrate public health with reproductive health,” said Bhattacharjee. “These health problems go unnoticed; the connection to salinity is not acknowledged in West Bengal in medical research or in health policy.”
The cross-border collaboration exemplified by Akter and Bhattacharjee was a new approach for Women’s Edition, one meant to address the parallel challenges of a rapidly changing media landscape and a fluid, fast-moving set of news events that demand information sharing and cross-sectional thinking.
As newsrooms shrink and journalists increasingly work on an independent or freelance basis, media face more pressures than ever, including a flood of information published without journalistic rigor on social media and criticism from authorities that can have dangerous consequences.5 Women journalists face unparalleled threats in the course of their work, and they are more likely to be harassed and targeted with sexual violence than their male colleagues.6 The digital media landscape can be particularly daunting: Women journalists have been targeted for asking tough questions about access, rights, and equity.7 Strengthening journalist networks and elevating the roles of women journalists are important reinforcements against these hazards.
Women’s Edition’s recent focus on complex themes, such as the interplay between gender dynamics and climate adaptation, pandemic response, and health supply chain management, promotes critical thinking about the ways in which current events—and our response to them—can alter or entrench existing inequities. A reduction in budgets for remote correspondents, travel, and in-depth newsgathering has meant some populations don’t get covered at all, Bhattacharjee noted, especially women in rural areas.
Yet PACE’s experience shows that when these stories are covered, decisionmakers take notice. Following a reporting grant to produce a three-part series on migration linked to climate change in late 2021, Women’s Edition fellow and television reporter Tahsina Sadeque learned that the Dhaka city government and city planners were using her reporting to inform a new detailed area plan that addresses the needs of climate refugees. In 2018, a Nepali fellow’s coverage of uterine prolapse resulted in expanded government-supported health services and a rural information campaign about the issue. Other fellows’ work has been cited by government ministers, U.S. ambassadors, civil-society organizations, and even other news media as an agent of change.
The convergence of factors that threaten to reduce the quality and breadth of publicly available information comes at a time when we most need accurate, real-time journalism to inform public debate and drive accountability among decisionmakers. The building blocks of Women’s Edition—peer networks, deep collaboration, multisectoral communication, and intersectional analysis of current events—exemplify the multidimensional solutions that can galvanize support for more inclusive and effective policies.
1 Global Media Monitoring Project, Who Makes the News? 2021.
2 Simge Andı, Meera Selva, and Rasmus Kleis Nielsen, Women and Leadership in the News Media 2020: Evidence From Ten Markets, Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, March 2020.
3 Janet Ranganathan, Sarah Parsons, and Jasmine Qin, “Squeezing the Sundarbans: Threats to World’s Largest Mangrove Forest Put Millions of People At Risk,” Resource Watch, May 24, 2018.
4 Prashanth Rao and Maite Taboada, “Gender Bias in the News: A Scalable Topic Modelling and Visualization Framework,” Frontiers in Artificial Intelligence, June 16, 2021; and Carolyn M. Byerly, Global Report on the Status of Women in the News Media, International Women’s Media Foundation (IWMF), 2011.
5 Arlene Getz, “Number of Journalists Behind Bars Reaches Global High,” Committee to Protect Journalists, December 9, 2021.
6 Alana Barton and Hannah Storm, Violence and Harassment Against Women in the News Media: A Global Picture, International Women’s Media Foundation (IWMF) and International News Safety Institute (INSI), 2014.
7 Julie Posetti et al., Online Violence Against Women Journalists: A Global Snapshot of Incidence and Impacts, United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), 2020.