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Girls drink Milk too

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Girls drink milk too

Positive messaging is what advertisers should be doing, instead of heedlessly reinforcing gender stereotypes, writes Afia Salam.

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Is this a rant? Well, sort of, although I usually restrict my rants to social media forums. But lately I have been a bigger ‘consumer’ of the media than ever before. Working from home, I usually have the television on, and what is beamed by way of advertising is, well, not very palatable.

The debate on the commodification of women has been done to death. We are seeing a lesser number of women pushing ‘men only’ products.

As for the issue of culturally inappropriate imagery, it may resurface along with the swirls of lawn now that summer is here. This is not what this rant is about.

Neither is it about the offensive ‘skin whitening’ creams promising a happily ever after. Or wedded bliss and acceptance by the in-laws by conjuring up the right kind of fragrance in cooked rice (Maggie Umda) and laundered clothes (Sunlight). I live in hope that these will eventually fade, or at least become reflective of another breed of women, who march ahead, notching up successes in fields as diverse as mountain climbing, flying planes, performing complicated surgery or teaching difficult subjects in remote parts of Pakistan; every one of them completely unmindful of the effect these activities may have on their complexion. Or culinary skills!

But I digress. This is about the gender bias in the advertising of products which lay claim to improving health, growth, well being and which reinforce dangerous stereotypes that have far reaching effects on society. And please don’t anyone fling the line at me that “it is just advertising; it has no effect.” Everyone associated with this industry knows the purpose of advertising is to have an effect on those it is targeted at – en route to the bottom line.

The problem I have with the advertising by some leading brands is their extreme gender imbalance, nay exclusion. Be it a brand of milk, (Nestlé Milk, Nido)… better still, of a fortified kind, or a food supplement (Horlicks), the talent shown in the commercial is that of a boy – never a girl! Boys are shown guzzling glasses of milk and adding IQ points, smearing butter and margarine on parathas and grabbing cups in sporting meets, adding nutrition supplements to their food and inches to their height.

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Why?

As I mentioned earlier, I usually rant on social media. I did on this issue too, and while there was some support for my point of view, it was the justification given for the gender exclusive trend that had me stumped! ‘Mothers prefer boys’.

Yes, a cultural truth, but not one that needs to be perpetuated. Advertising is target market oriented, so since there is a tilt in favour of the male child, it has to cater to that niche… true again. But isn’t advertising about creating a demand to lead to a sale?

How will the addition of a girl in products not meet any marketing and advertising goals? The kind of products I have mentioned and the market they target has a profile of mothers who are usually without such biases. And if these biases are inherent, they can be nudged away with the right kind of messaging. Sometimes all it needs is for someone to realise that their biases are baseless.

The segment of children depicted in these commercials is not one where girls would be made to wait until their male sibling has eaten so that they can be given the leftovers. These too are the harsh realities of our patriarchal landscape, but the households shown in these ads are not from there.

milk3Also, judging by the monumental failure of our family planning programme, this single male child family may be a latent aspiration, but is far removed from reality. Wouldn’t a mother (or father) pouring two glasses of milk or stirring in spoonfuls of food supplements or ‘buttering up’ toast and parathas and then handing them over to a son and a daughter be more believable?

Surely brands with millions to spend on promotion in order to gain billions can afford the addition of a girl in the same concept? Even the film directors will not be too hard pressed to fit them in the same frame as their male sibling.

The social costs of the visual exclusion are far greater, especially in Pakistan, which ranks abysmally low on the nutrition index – 97 out of 125! It also scores a shameful 19.3 out of 100 on the Global Hunger Index. Scratch the surface, and you will see a clear tilt in this imbalance, negatively impacting women in general, and girls in particular.

When existing cultural biases are entrenched deep into the psyche, positive messaging, which need not even be a hard sell, can play a role in chipping away the stereotypes. It has been done elsewhere with success and the advertising industry across the world in general and in Pakistan in particular, has been putting forth some brilliant public service messages. There is no dearth of creativity here. Some of the current advertising, slice of life as well as fantasy, have engaging concepts, humour and great execution.

Advertising is usually taken to be an extended arm of marketing and the sales department of a brand. Try rocking the boat a bit; go beyond the market surveys and insights and rely on gut feel. Even if keeping an eye on the numbers is the objective, there is no harm in suggesting that the client attempt to broaden the customer base.

I still remember a brand of children’s biscuits – Choco Chum – which had no competitor in the market and enjoyed healthy growth. The agency urged, cajoled, and finally convinced the brand into doing an ad campaign and sales skyrocketed. They pushed the market envelope and the brand reaped the benefits.

So advertising does make a difference. Gender insensitive brand messaging neither makes good business sense, nor is it socially responsible. Maybe the advertising industry, which has the money and the clout could launch an affirmative action plan and weed out such practices.

How about kick-starting the brainstorming process by putting on a proxy and watching (on YouTube) the excellent advocacy animation developed by UNICEF called ‘Meena kee kahani’ addressing just this issue.

After all, we too have many Meenas in our midst. Let us not allow them to slip off the radar!

Afia Salam is a freelance journalist and has worked as a creative head at three agencies. afiasalam@gmail.com

First published in the May-June 2014 issue.

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Written by afiasalam

June 11, 2014 at 1:40 pm

‪#‎KarachiAirportAttack‬: We learn from history, that we NEVER learn from history

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The story developed like a gathering storm. First there was news of a security breach when some armed men cut through the fence from the “Fokker gate’ near the Ispahani Hanger, close to the Pehelwah Goth area which had already been cited as a security risk many times.

Ispahani hanger

Ispahani wide-body aircraft maintenance hangar at Karachi Airport in early 1980s. In late 1970s, PIA spent more than 17 million US Dollars for construction of a new hangar capable of housing two wide-bodied aircraft. The construction of hangar and related workshop was completed and commissioned in 1980. The hangar has been named after Mirza Ahmad Ispahani who was the longest serving chairman of PIA from 1955 to 1962.

Television audience was just trying to catch its breath over the horror unfolding in Taftan, on the Pak-Iran border where over 22 Shia Zaireen lost their lives to a suicide attack, in a manner that has such a familiar, horrible ring to it.

As if that breaking news was not heartbreaking enough, news about the security breach at the Karachi Airport wherein ASF check post was attacked splashed across the screens.

First it was that the ASF personnel had been injured and the intruders had come in. Then the entire incident snowballed wherein they not only killed the ASF personnel, but a PIA employee in the Cargo terminal, as they moved rapidly deeper into the Karachi airport.

The fire fights broke out, Rangers moved in to assist the ASF personnel, sounds of blasts and heavy weaponry rent the night air, and then there was news of the terrorists moving towards an international airliner on the runway, ready to depart, and stiff resistance in which they were able to hit an oil depot, sending out leaping flames billowing smoke.

Karachi Airport Attack

The media rushed into this chaotic scene, and added to the confusion by throwing in unconfirmed, unattributed, very speculative news, including that of aircraft on fire.

That there can NEVER be any short cuts to experience was very clearly visible on a couple of channels who rushed their senior reporters. That is where some voices of sanity could be heard. The rest were proving prime examples of irresponsible journalism, which showed that the back-end support from the newsrooms was just as lacking in experiencing and ability to deal with such crisis.

Troops movement were shown, until better sense prevailed, Names of the fallen personnel were being aired, when protocol as well as sensitivity demands that the family be notified before the names are revealed. Bodies were shown, their condition graphically described, location of the mortuary as well as injured personnel was revealed too. This is all against the agreed media norms.

When will the media learn?  Despite being involved in media trainings, it is at times like these I feel it is a losing battle. Pakistan is supposed to be a ‘happening place’.. not for all the right reasons, but even then, these happenings provide ample opportunity for the media to learn and improve itself, for practise is supposed to make you perfect, instead of being repetitively imperfect!

However, that is whole different discourse. Let us talk about the ‪#‎KarachiAirportAttack‬. How is history repeated? Why was the name of the Mehran and Kamra airbase bandied about? And why has a huge sigh of relief been heaved simply because in the final analysis, the ‘assets’ remained safe.. despite the loss of 16 precious lives.

Is it because, as reports during this crisis indicated, prior warning had been received of an imminent attack on the Karachi Airport, and yet it happened? just like in the case of Mehran and Kamra bases? If that warning had been given a week ago, what extra security measures had been taken? was the alert level raised to match the threat level? Apparently not.

The ‘jungle’ that is being mentioned across the perimeter fence from where one group of these terrorists intruded is not a Redwood forest.. those are just bushes which in any case should not have been obscuring the view of any person on watch, if there was one.

The area adjoining Pehelwan Goth should have extra security not just because of its proximity to a populated area, but because of the presence of the operational installations of the airport, like the RADAR, which are located there. They are much too easily accessible.

Also, even after the end of the operation, the other entry point has not been mentioned, despite acknowledgement of the fact that the terrorists came from two different points.

However, what bothers me, and takes me back to another incident at the Karachi Airport, way back in the mid 80’s.. in September 1986 to be precise when the PanAm Flight 01 was stormed by terrorists, who has entered the airport effortlessly, because they were wearing ASF uniforms, and were in a van with ASF markings.

They were just saluted in, and went right up to the aircraft, and boarded it, making the passengers hostage. The crew, following protocols, escaped from the cockpit so the terrorists were not able to get the plane to fly to a destination of their choice. The saga lasted for over two days, and had a violent and bloody end with over 20 people killed when Pakistani commandos stormed the plane, killed most of the hijackers, but not without loss of life to the passengers either.

So is being in a uniform enough of a right of passage to even high security areas? Is this attitude that is the Achilles heal of our security set up? Why hasn’t the protocol of  questioning persons of one’s own force trickled down through the forces that are manning the entry points. There MUST NOT be any exceptions to the rule… be they women, children, people in uniform, specially those wearing your own uniform.

It is these lapses that have cost us dearly in the past, but we never seem to learn from them. These people entered not only wearing uniforms, which are not really all that hard to acquire, but came in with heavy weaponry. Irrespective of the origin of those weapons, which again is the subject of another debate, the fact that so much armament cross the security parameter of the largest civilian airport of the country is scary prospect.

One doesn’t want to take anything away from the round of congratulations taking place at the ‘end’ of the operation in which ASF, Rangers, Sindh Police and the Zarrar Force of the Pakistan Army ‘cleared’ it of the terrorists within 5 hours.

3 of the intruders blew themselves up, 7 were taken down.. none survived so the who, when, what, why of the incident will need some other modes of answers. 16 others lost their lives, ASF, Police, Rangers, PIA and CAA staffers. 22 have suffered injuries of varying degrees and severity. Aircraft remained safe and just the cargo building suffered damage.

But isn’t there another damage we need to assess amidst all the thumping of the chest and backslapping? The damage to an already fragile image of the efficacy of intelligence and security apparatus which is supposed to pre-empt, and prevent these incidents. Damage control and fire fighting takes the shine off the remarks about the ‘ability to deal with all manifestations of terrorism’ etc.

Or is it this very question that is damaging?

Written by afiasalam

June 9, 2014 at 3:24 am

Treacherous weather

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Treacherous weather

Raining on the farmers’ parade

Afia Salam

Rain is usually considered a harbinger of joy, happiness, and for agrarian based economies like ours, fortune and prosperity.  But something about the recent unexpected rain spells has been causing a lot of concern in the country. While city dwellers enjoy the cloudy relief from the sun, rural farmers are almost tearing their hair in despair. Like with everything else in the world, timing is everything.

The recent out of season downpour accompanied by hailstones the size of golf balls has come at a terrible time; the old crop was either being readied for harvest, or had been recently harvested during the cutting season, but was still in the fields and not in the safety of a warehouse or store.

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Pictures by Aamer Hayat Bhandara

The farmers in the bread basket of Pakistan have suffered huge losses as a result. Explaining the dynamics of this abnormal occurrence, Pakistan’s Chief Meteorologist, Dr. Ghulam Rasool made a foreboding remark that a similar abnormality had occurred in 1997-98, which had resulted in a 3 year period of drought in Pakistan.

He was skeptical about the efficacy of the in-place early warning systems despite the fact that the Food Security Division of the Government stays well connected with the Pakistan Meteorological Department, which has a special section of farm sector specific weather information on its website. However, he says the task of outreach of that information lies with the Agriculture Extension Division, which has not been able to cover the farmer community in its entirety.

Giving details of the damage, Amir Hayat Bhandara, a farmer from the Pakpattan area shared pictures showing the damage to the standing as well as harvested crop. He says that damage is so extensive that the government should carry out an in-depth evaluation, and even declare the areas as calamity hit so they can be provided with relief through waivers of taxes, loan repayments, and subsidy support in the supply and pricing of agricultural inputs. He said farmers have also been calling for crop insurance in all districts in lieu of the unpredictability of the rainy season.

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crop flattened by high winds and lashing rain

Pictures by Aamer Hayat Bhandara

Dr. Pervaiz Amir, Pakistan’s leading agro-economist and climate change expert says that the rains and hail, accompanied by high velocity winds have laid waste to wheat bundles in the fields, and have also damaged livestock.

The capricious weather will also have a negative affect on mango production. Dr. Amir warns that there will be a major reduction in mango yields due to the strong, windy conditions. This may result in at least a 25% or more increase in the price of mangoes. However, the reduced temperatures and moisture will prove beneficial for cotton sowing. It may even be good for sowing rice and preparing land for future use, and may also have a positive impact on fodder production.

In the context of climate change, adaptive measures through crop rotation will have to be enforced, drastically altering the current cropping calendar. He urges bridging the Information and knowledge gap and making farmers aware of the forecasted changes as the agricultural sector desperately needs to be climate proofed.

Dr. Qaiser, a research scholar studying the impacts of climate change on agriculture also cautions about not keeping pace with new developments, especially new pests and diseases that are likely to attack the crops in view of the changing climate. These will not be eradicated by the pesticides currently in use and may cause further damage.

The findings of a research project called ‘A Micro-Economic Study on Climate Change: Adaptation in the Indus Eco Region’, jointly conducted by WWF-Pakistan, LUMS (Lahore University of Management Sciences), LSE (London School of Economics) and supported by IDRC (International Development Research Center), warn of an almost 10% loss in agricultural productivity due to these impacts, which would compromise food security for Pakistan. This research was spearheaded by Dr. Adil Najam, former Vice Chancellor of LUMS, and a leading authority on the environment and climate change.

Even the National Climate Change Policy has articulated the existential threat of climate change to Pakistan. It very emphatically states that “only by devising and implementing appropriate adaptation measures will it be possible to ensure water, food and energy security for the country….”

Leading environmental lawyer Rafay Alam has listed the key adaptive measures that need to be taken to safeguard the agricultural sector.

They include changing the cropping pattern according to the availability of water, better production management, and more informed decision making on use of land. Of course this is directly linked to the judicious use of the available water resources, which are depleting, and planning for the future, coupled with research, and the dissemination of this information through farmer trainings and workshops.

However, all that has to be part of a long term, on-going strategy to safeguard the agricultural sector. For the present, the government needs to send its field forces out to assess damage and assist the farming community that has been hit hard by these untimely rainy spells. The long term plans will have to go hand in hand with damage control.

Afia Salam is a freelance journalist who writes about environment, climate change, media, digital freedom and gender issues

Written by afiasalam

June 5, 2014 at 3:30 pm