Southern Africa strikes a blow for gender equality

BY Ammu Joseph| IN Media Practice | 26/10/2004
The Gender and Media summit marked the culmination of the first phase of a remarkable process that has been under way in southern Africa over the past two years.

Ammu Joseph

?What, in the end, could be more central to free speech than that every segment of society should have a voice??

Dr. Athalia Molokomme
(High Court Judge, Botswana
Head, Gender Unit, Southern African Development Community,
Deputy Chairperson, Gender Links, South Africa)

?Making every voice count? was the theme of the path-breaking Gender and Media Summit that took place on the outskirts of Johannesburg in September 2004.  Hosted by the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA), which seeks to foster free, independent and DIVerse media in the region, and Gender Links, a South Africa-based non-governmental organisation that promotes gender equality in and through the media, the GEM Summit brought together 184 participants, most of them from the 13 countries in the region. 

Interestingly, over one third -- or 35 per cent -- of the participants were men.  Among the many high-powered persons who participated in the Summit were two ministers (from Mauritius and Seychelles), several editors and heads of media organisations (e.g., L¿Express group of Mauritius and Capital Radio, Malawi), and a number of senior media professionals, academics and activists from across the region.  A few international participants were also there on invitation, including some from other parts of Africa. 

A key outcome of the Summit was the launch of the Gender and Media Network Southern Africa (GEMSA).  According to the vision outlined in its draft constitution, the new network aims to ?promote gender equality in and through the media in tangible, action-oriented strategies aimed at achieving and measuring change.?  GEMSA is expected to facilitate a coordinated regional strategy to help improve media performance vis a vis gender in a variety of fields, ranging from election coverage to reporting on culture and religion, violence against women or  HIV/AIDS.  It consists of a broad spectrum of inDIViduals and organisations, including media practitioners, editors¿ forums, media women¿s associations, other journalists¿ associations and/or unions, media education/training institutions, media NGOs, gender NGOs, country-level gender and media networks, as well as MISA (which has chapters in inDIVidual countries in addition to a regional presence) and Gender Links. 

The Summit marked the culmination of the first phase of a remarkable process that has been under way in southern Africa over the past two years.  The journey began with the landmark Gender and Media Baseline Study (GMBS), launched in March 2003.  Possibly the most extensive and comprehensive gender/media monitoring project in the world to date, the survey covered 36 per cent of all media (public, private, community) in the 12 countries that belong to the Southern African Development Community (SADC).   Spanning a whole month (September 2002) and including both quantitative and qualitative analysis, the study examined 25,110 items of news from both print and broadcast media to find out how women and men are represented and portrayed in the media, in what areas, and by who. 

Among the key findings of the GMBS were that women¿s voices and views were grossly under-represented in the media in the region, constituting only 17 per cent of known news sources; that while there were significant variations across countries, there was less difference between public and private media;  and that while older women were virtually invisible, women in certain occupational categories were virtually silent.  (For more details click here) 

The GMBS, which focussed exclusively on news, set out to generate an invaluable data-base to serve as a benchmark for assessing progress towards achieving gender balance in media coverage, build capacity for monitoring media content from a gender perspective, and create a key advocacy tool for use in the campaign to ensure that the voices of women and men, in all their DIVersity, are equally represented and fairly portrayed in the media.  The regional overview was complemented by 12 separate reports providing more detailed reviews of the situation in inDIVidual countries. 

The first in a series of quarterly, country-level surveys -- under the common title, ?Mirror on the Media? - were undertaken in the period leading up to the Summit.  These mini follow-up surveys, looking at media coverage over one month in 2004, are meant to serve as tools for measuring progress in achieving gender balance in the media in between major research studies like the GMBS.  The reports distributed at the Summit suggest that there has been some improvement in gender balance and sensitivity in the media in several countries in the two years since the GMBS, with some places reporting more progress than others. 

A major highlight of the Summit was the newly instituted Southern African Gender and Media Awards, presented for the first time at a high-profile gala dinner on the opening day of the Summit.  Representatives of the South African government and the city of Johannesburg, as well as decision-makers from various fields, including the media, were in attendance at the evening event.   The awards are meant to honour journalists across the region for work that meets professional standards while effectively tackling gender issues.  To be conferred every two years in order to showcase quality coverage of gender issues, the awards are for work in five categories:  newspaper and magazine, opinion and commentary, photojournalism, television, and radio.  Among the first batch of award-winners were several men. 

According to the judges, the quantity, quality and variety of entries represented ?a resounding testimony to the progress that is being made in southern Africa towards presenting gender issues in ways that spark debate and make more professional, robust journalism.?  They also revealed considerable improvement in gender coverage since the period monitored for the GMBS, suggesting that professionals of both sexes, as well as their organisations, were increasingly recognising that gender awareness can positively influence journalism across the board.

A directory of women sources, compiled by the Media Watch Organisation in Mauritius and released during the Summit, was another example of constructive action following the GMBS.  The attractive publication, listing female experts in different fields who are willing to speak to the media, puts paid to the customary excuse that the absence of women¿s voices in the media, documented by the GMBS as well as other major studies such as the Global Media Monitoring Project (1995, 2000), merely reflects the non-existence and/or non-availability of appropriate female sources of information and opinion.   

A pilot project to mainstream gender into entry-level journalism education was another interesting development during the period since the GMBS.  The first batch of students in the region - and possibly in the world - to have undergone a media training course in which gender has been systematically integrated into most aspects of their learning over a three-year period are expected to graduate at the end of 2004.  The landmark project,  undertaken by the Polytechnic of Namibia along with Gender Links, is distinctive in that it has attempted to integrate gender into all key areas of the curriculum, instead of  confining gender coverage to a special course, which is the usual practice even when/where it is recognised as a legitimate aspect of journalism education. 

Yet another note-worthy initiative that has emerged out of the GMBS process is a series of training programmes on Gender, Elections and the Media, to be held in various countries ahead of the scheduled elections in nine SADC nations during 2004-05.  Included in several post-GMBS National Action Plans, the project has been strengthened by the first-ever study on the impact of women in politics in the region (?Ringing up the Changes:  Gender in Southern African Politics?), conducted by Gender Links during 2002-03.  A preliminary assessment of the first such training, organised in South Africa prior to the April 2004 elections, showed significant improvement in the quantity and quality of coverage on women as candidates and voters, gender issues in campaigns, and the extent to which gender had become one of the measures of accountability in  elections. 

The preliminary findings of the first phase of a regional Gender and Media Audience Research project -- undertaken to assess the responses of women and men to the gender aspects of the news they consume -- were also presented during the Summit.   Among the interesting preliminary findings of the research, conducted in six countries, are the fact that ?both women and men would find the news more interesting if there was greater DIVersity in representations of women and men,? and that ?both women and men find sexual images of women in news uncomfortable and insulting.? 

If the volume and variety, not to mention value, of all these recent initiatives is awe-inspiring, even more impressive is the fact that gender/media advocates in southern Africa have even been able to make inroads into policy.  For instance, the Mauritius Broadcasting Corporation (the largest media house in the region, with three television and five radio channels) sought the assistance of the local Media Watch Organisation and Gender Links to kick off a process leading to a broad-based draft gender policy for the organisation, covering editorial and advertising content, staff composition, working conditions/environment, sexual harassment, etc.  L¿Express newspaper group in Mauritius followed suit, inviting the MWO and GL to conduct training programmes for its staff.  Now another Mauritian media house is reportedly keen on a similar project. 

In Malawi, the management and staff of the family-owned FM radio station, Capital Radio, were jolted into action by the findings of the GMBS and launched a programme seeking ?to transform the operations and image of the station on gender issues and ? raise the level and volume of the voices of women on the station.?  The Malawi Broadcasting Corporation has also recently developed a strategic plan in which gender is prominent. 

In Zambia it was a state-owned newspaper group, Times Printpak Zambia, that responded to the GMBS by undertaking a serious, long-term internal exercise to formulate a gender policy that addresses editorial content, employment and conditions of service.  Senior members of the team spearheading the process reported at the Summit that their gender policy, which has gone through three drafts, is almost ready for adoption, while a gender-sensitive House Style Manual is under production and a related HIV/AIDS policy has already been approved. 

Colleen Lowe Morna, executive director of Gender Links and the first chairperson of GEMSA, unanimously elected on the last day of the Summit, was not exaggerating when she said during the concluding session, ?In the two years since the GMBS we have, if not a gender and media movement, then movement on gender and the media.?  At the same time, acknowledging that there were still miles to go before achieving gender equality in the media, she said:  ?When every voice counts we can stop counting the voices.? 

N.B.  The final report on and other material relating to the Summit are available at on the Gender Links website:

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