Representative image
Representative image

The media’s no nuance, judgemental coverage of infanticide by new mothers

In most Malayalam media’s coverage of the murder of a newborn in Kochi, an array of sexist adjectives were used for the mother. It is not that women should not be held responsible for their crimes, only, the lens of the press appears to have an entirely different focus depending on the gender of the accused.

In the last few days, at least two incidents of pregnant women attempting childbirth on their own were reported in Kerala’s Kochi. The first story, which unfolded on May 3, ended badly with the child’s alleged murder – the body was discovered on the street after being tossed out from an apartment in Panampilly Nagar. Panic, shock, and disbelief seeped into the early reports of the incident, but the tone of the reportage soon changed, when the apparent involvement of the child’s 23-year-old mother surfaced. Two days later, when the second story came to light – that of a woman giving birth in the bathroom of a hostel in Kochi – some of the media reported with a sigh of relief that in this case, at least the child could be saved. 

While sensitivity is often compromised in crime coverage, it appears to take a total back seat when a woman is involved, often reprimanding if not downright moral policing her. It is not that women should not be held responsible for their crimes, especially grave ones like murder. Only, the lens of the press appears to have an entirely different focus depending on the gender of the accused. When it is a woman, she must answer for more than her crime because her conduct upsets the ideal of womanhood –subservient, nurturing, and submissive, cultivated by the patriarchal society through the ages. 

In the Panampally Nagar incident, the police suspect that the woman might have been a survivor of rape. She had given birth by herself inside the bathroom of her parents’ apartment and reportedly confessed to the police that she was responsible for the baby’s death. The parents and other residents of the building said that they were not aware of the woman’s pregnancy, let alone the child’s death. 

While several media approached the incident sensitively, avoiding triggering details and judgment, some of the Malayalam media quickly dug up incidents from the past where women have been found guilty of killing their own children, making the narrative about how “mothers turn murderers to start a life with their lovers”. Specific emphasis was laid on the Panampally Nagar woman’s unmarried status, and her pregnancy “out of wedlock”.The question of whether she was a survivor of sexual assault did not seem to matter, and the man responsible for the pregnancy is not even mentioned, let alone questioned for any of it. 

The coverage then started using an array of sexist adjectives for women who commit infanticides, contrasting them with the ideal image of the ever-patient, all-bearing mother who can have no “negative feelings”. Such an ideal take on motherhood is a product of centuries of patriarchal gaze on motherhood. Since the reason for the infanticide has not been conclusively announced by the police, responsible coverage would not ignore aspects like postpartum psychosis and other severe mental health conditions triggered by childbirth that may contribute to infanticide by new mothers. Factors like social stigma, stress, fear of isolation or public humiliation, and many other contributing factors also find no place in such discourse. Further, these stories often telecast or mention the gruesome details without so much as a trigger warning. 

Only a few approached the story with other angles, including an explainer of postpartum depression, and the role of society in driving unwed mothers into these crimes. The birth of a child outside marriage is still a huge stigma in India, and unmarried women often feel compelled to hide their pregnancy from even their closest friends and family. While a few may be able to access a safe abortion, also a legal right as ensured by the Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act, some end up in bathrooms in the middle of the night without a single person to assist them like in the two cases in Kochi.

In Kerala’s neighboring Tamil Nadu as well, another incident of a newborn’s death shortly after self-assisted childbirth was reported a few days ago. The child’s limb was chopped off in an accident while its mother, a nurse, tried an episiotomy procedure to aid the delivery. A few regional channels reported the incident with repeated references to her “unwed” status, and one mentioned “an illicit affair”. 

Even in the coverage of women being murdered, mutilated, or attacked with acid by men who had a romantic relationship with them, many news reports sympathise with the attacker using monickers like “jilted lover” who was “heartbroken”. In November last year, after women in a Chennai pub were chased and harassed by a group of inebriated men, several media including Polimer, News Tamil 24 * 7, and Thanthi, ran visuals shaming the women for drinking and for their choice of clothing.  

Read: How women became the target in a case of vengeance against a Chennai pub

While there is no doubt that women are capable of brutal crimes and that they cannot be unduly insulated against punishment, there is an additional moral burden imposed on them when they become protagonists of crime stories. Their acts are always weighed against a patriarchal ideal of femininity, ignoring the nuances of the crime and taking away from the integrity of the reportage.

In the infanticide coverage from Kerala, it is a welcome change that at least some reports attempted a critical analysis of the society’s culture of victim blaming and abortion stigma that drives many women into infanticide. But it is also true that the media itself has played a significant role in propagating such insecurity in women. 

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