African media needs to buy into gender parity

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to be the defining story of our lives, it is important that women are fairly represented in the media.

“COVID-19 affects everyone everywhere, but it affects different groups of people differently and we've certainly seen in South Africa the deepening of existing inequalities,” said fraycollege CEO Paula Fray.

Fray spoke moderating a fraycollege discussion on July 16 about putting women on the news agenda with UN Women South Africa Multi-Country Office director Anne Githuku-Shongwe, WAN-IFRA Women In News (WIN) Africa director Jane Godia, and Quote this Woman+ director Kathy Magrobi.

Githuku-Shongwe told participants the shadow pandemic of gender-based violence was a key concern during the COVID-19 crisis.

One-in-three women experience it in their lifetime according to The World Bank statistics. Additionally, 35% of women worldwide have experienced intimate partner violence.

“What was so interesting for us is that because, as we went into lockdown in South Africa and in several of the countries in this region, the assumptions were that violence against women would be somehow sorted by the lockdown. But, the truth of it is that the data that started to emerge in these areas were really relly massive pointing to how deep gender-based violence and particular intimate partner violence began to spread,” Githuku-Shongwe said.

A UNFPA technical brief on COVID-19 and gender highlights that pandemics worsen existing gender disparities and vulnerability, “increasing risks of abuse”. As many African countries have enforced lockdown measures, women and girls have been locked in and locked down with their abusers.

Githuku-Shongwe said journalists need to implore data to get to the deeper issues of the story.

“Our issues tend to be so heavy in many countries somehow they are overlooked and they're very superficially handled,” Githuku-Shongwe said.

Magrobi highlighted that women and men experience life differently and that the absence of women in the media can ultimately affect narratives that underpin both public opinion and policymaking.

“When women's voices are absent in the news, their perspectives are not reflected, perspectives that are critical to deepening broad debates,” Magrobi said.

When women’s voices are absent, only half the story is told, said Godia.

“We want to see women as news subjects. What is this story? Can this story be about women? And beyond that, we also want to see women as news producers. Can we have more bylines of women? And, can we have more women as producers and editors so that the face of the woman is not missing?” Godia said.

Women contribute to more than half of the world’s population, however, they are only

seen, heard and read in the media about 25% of the time, according to a WIN guidebook on gender balance.

“Improving gender balance in content can be challenging, however. It takes conscious,

thoughtful measures to recognise and dismantle unconscious bias. It takes a concerted effort to begin identifying and including new voices and opinions in our content on a consistent basis.” said the guidebook.

The misrepresentation of women can also contribute to gender stereotypes. Githuku-Shongwe said journalists needed to be careful of how they described women in the news.

“The one thing we need to watch is how we portray women [...] It’s not just about getting women in the media but it’s about how we are defining them,” she said.

Magrobi said the way the media portrays women reinforces certain metanarratives about gender.

“[Some] women leaders are described as strong and maybe the intention is complementary. But the implication is that unlike men the default woman is fragile,” Magrobi said

From her work on the continent, Godia said an effective change in the portrayal and representation of women in news can only happen once top management buys into the importance of gender parity in the news.

“We really start at the top because if you don't get their buy-in from the top, then doors are not going to be open for you. And we encourage them to develop all policies such as gender [...] and also issues like sexual harassment policy from the top so that then these become living documents that they are able to use in their day to day operations,” Godia said.

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