South Africa needs a gendered lens in reporting COVID-19

Good reporting can shape public discussions that can lead to effective decision-making, making it even more important for journalism during this critical time of the COVID-19 pandemic to have a gendered lens.

fraycollege conducted training on May 21 to highlight the significance of gender-sensitive reporting in South Africa during the COVID-19 crisis where women, children, and gender non-conforming persons are likely to be the most vulnerable.

Anne Githuku-Shongwe, representative of the UN Women's South Africa Multi-Country Office opened the Gender Aware Reporting on COVID-19 training hosted by UN Women, Partnerships for Prevention, Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit, and SaferSpaces.

Soul City Institute for Social Justice spokesperson and senior executive for programmes Gail Smith said journalists should apply a gendered lens to every story because anything reported on has a gendered impact.

“Gender inequality is gender inequality irrespective of whether one is living in a pandemic or not. Gender-based violence undermines the safety, the dignity and the human rights of thousands of women and girls in our country every day,” she said.

Smith was speaking at a panel discussion which was part of the training with epidemiologist Professor Quarraisha Abdool Karim who also sits on the COVID-19 advisory committee to the South African Ministry of Health and Mia Malan, editor-in-chief of the Bhekisisa Centre for Health Journalism. frayintermedia CEO Paula Fray moderated the discussion.

“Epidemics like COVID-19 and HIV affect men and women very differently largely because of traditional gender roles and also because of deeply rooted inequality,” said Malan, adding that these outbreaks are “mirrors” that reflect what is already happening in society.

Gender-based violence remains a stark issue in South Africa with almost 180 000 contact crimes against women reported to the police in the 2018/2019 financial year.

A South African police media statement released in April said: “Over 2 300 calls/complaints [about gender-based violence] have been registered since the beginning of the lockdown on 27 March 2020 until 31 March 2020 and from these, 148 suspects were charged”.

The statement also said that the minister of police Bheki Cele confirmed that the number of complaints remained high and are “concerning”.

Abdool Karim said journalists need to consider whose voice and narrative is being used in what is covered as well as pay attention to what is profiled and highlighted.

“When we think about what we currently read and what dominates, it’s more about omission rather than inclusion and that omission by its very nature devalues the role of women,” she said.

Smith said there is a tendency of pursuing the most salacious story when it comes to reporting on women.

“[It’s] sometimes because of laziness and sometimes because of ignorance. People do resort very easily to stereotype in order to bring the stories and make the points that they need to make,” she said.

Smith said a salacious story often reported on is the blesser/blessee phenomena yet the bigger issue of “staggeringly” high levels of transactional sexual relations between young women and older men is ignored.

“I think that really is one of the most under-reported stories of all time, really,” she said.

Abdool Karim contributed to a study on sub-Saharan Africa that says adolescent girls and young women between the ages of 15-24 have up to eightfold higher rates of infection in comparison to their male peers.

“Gender-based violence is reflecting some very fundamental gender power disparities and if you take HIV and look at the facts that young women 15-24 years bear a disproportionate burden of infection also speaks to power differentials,” Abdool Karim said.

Smith said stories need to look at why there is a high level of transactional sexual relations in the country outside of the usual coverage of blaming the woman. She added that transactional sexual relations are a form of “economic exploitation” yet are also a means of survival for these young women.

“If you always portray them as just victims [...] and you don’t give them agency then you damage the role of women if you think the only thing a woman can be is a victim,” Malan said.

Malan added that it is not about how many women you quote in a story but rather it is about how you quote them and how you portray women.

“When I look at journalism, I look at it as the first documentation of history and when you look at journalism as the first documentation of history and when you go back and look at the archives some time from now, what do we see in those archives? What does it tell us about society?” Abdool Karim said.

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