For decades, African women have been portrayed negatively in the media. They are almost always objectified, victimized or are even connected to irrelevant topics that further portray them as helpless and non-actors when it comes to decision making.
This stereotypical narrative has been developed for centuries and ingrained in the mindsets of people, including women. To counter these narratives, UN Women organized a four-day training on Gender-Responsive Reporting, to equip journalists and writers to highlight inspirational and empowering stories about African women.
This was further highlighted at the ‘Women Advancing Africa’ inaugural forum in Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania.
Ms Hodan Addou, UN Women Tanzania Representative, said that the media needs to portray women as, “more than mere bystanders in development.” Stories that portray stereotypes about women often result in women’s stories remaining “unheard and their names unknown.”
This she said is by telling stories of women as “proven agents of change, leaders, innovators responsible for a lot of the positive developments on the continent.”
Reading a positive lead front page story on successful women is rare. When published, the photograph used to accompany the article will most likely downplay her story.
The 2015 ‘Who Makes the News’ Global Media Monitoring Project report indicates that women are the subjects of television, radio and print news coverage only a quarter of the time. Across all media, women were the central focus of just 10 per cent of news stories in 2015 – exactly the same figure as in 2000.
“We need to change this narrative that relegates African women to a one-dimensional personality that only focuses on fashion, food and romantic relationships,” Ms Addou said.
Additionally, the gender gap is narrowest when reporting on women in the sciences and health sectors --areas that carry the lowest importance on the news agenda with an only 8 percent news space.
The ‘Women in Media: What is the narrative?’ research conducted by the Graca Machel Trust, further cites that 21 percent of people associated women’s issues with “beauty and fashion.”
According to the report, little emphasis is directed toward the coverage of women in politics, business, religion and sports in addition to “little focus on Gender-based violence, which is prevalent in most African countries.”
Ms Valarie Msoka, Former Executive Director of TAMWA (Tanzania Women’s Media Association) said the issues go beyond the media, and stem from the injustices and inequalities in societies.
“Unfairness and inequality in the way you cover stories is very much a reflection of the inequalities and injustices in the societies we live in and of the political, social and economic landscapes we work in,” Ms. Msoka said.
“To understand and adopt Gender-Responsive Reporting principles in print, broadcast, online media and photography while following international guidelines for ethical journalism,” Msoka said is not only about, “things like sources and context. It’s also about the language we use in writing our stories or making programmes. To be truly equal, women must be seen and heard to be equal. This means eliminating language that misrepresents, excludes or offends women.”
In 1987, Ms. Msoka and 12 other women founded the Tanzania Media Women’s Association because they wanted to change the narrative on women portrayed in the media. This was with the aim to consequently bring about, “social transformation towards a society that respects and practices gender equality in every sphere.” However, she said they still have a long way to go.
According to Msoka, in order for the news to accurately mirror our societies, to produce coverage that is complete and diverse, it is critical that content reflects the world as seen through the eyes of both women and men.
“When we talk of gender sensitive reporting, the nature of news, the choices made about what is newsworthy and the way the story is reported must change and women need to be used more as the sources and subjects of stories,” she said and added, “They need to be interviewed as commentators and experts. Currently most sources are men.”
Therefore, it is paramount that a new wave of awareness on the concept of gender is reconsidered. Rather that narrowing gender to women only as it has always been in the media, priority needs to be directed to the issues that both women and men face and approach these responsibly with a new gender lens.
UN Women works with local media houses and newsrooms, through its project ‘African Women Changing the Narrative’ to tell stories that would effectively portray women in a positive light.