MONROVIA, Liberia (WOMENSENEWS)--Christiana Garpeh listened attentively with her headphones as she put together her first radio piece of the day. She ignored the Beyonce song playing in the newsroom to focus on transcribing an interview.
The interview was with a woman from Pagos Island, a part of Monrovia cut off from the rest of the city by swamps. She was seeking donors for women's literacy classes and classes in soap making and tailoring.
Each working day Garpeh produces about two such stories on the needs of women for broadcast by Liberia Women Democracy Radio, housed in a two-story building in Congo Town on the outskirts of Monrovia, the nation's capital.
Across the hall that day in the on-air studio, two men hosted a talk show about reducing poverty. That day's theme: transportation and how women in particular, due to their caretaking burdens, need better access to markets and medical centers.
Next door in the production studio, Varnetta M. Johnson edited a weekly show on traditional women that explores different tribes' customs, such as weddings and greetings. Many Liberians are unaware of their traditions, she said, especially if their families moved to Monrovia and left the old ways behind.
Launched in August by President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Liberia Women Democracy Radio is the first station in the country focused on women's advancement.
Startup funding from the United Nations Democracy Fund permits the station to pay its reporters. With funding set to expire at the end of March though, a financial transition team is now working to establish an endowment account with a local bank to accept donations. The team is also working to start selling air time, seek sponsorship and raise funds.
In addition to producing radio shows, the station grooms female reporters, a tall order in a country where girls' education suffered disproportionately during the country's 14 years of civil war. Sixty percent of women in Liberia aged 15-49 are illiterate, compared to 30 percent of men in this age group, according to a 2009 fact sheet from the U.N. and Liberian government. Forty-two percent of Liberian women--versus 18 percent of men--have never attended school.
Women's lower levels of education may help explain why female journalists are a tiny minority in Liberian newsrooms and why women's issues often get overlooked.
Only 1 in 6 journalists in Liberia is female, according to a report produced by Action Aid, an international anti-poverty agency with head offices in Johannesburg, South Africa, and the Liberia Media Center, a nonprofit media organization based in Monrovia.
"All over Liberia women feel journalism is men's work, not just here," said Armstrong Bee, director of radio and head of business of Radio Gbarnga, a community radio station in Bong County's capital city in north-central Liberia. The station had one woman on its volunteer staff of around 20 and is trying to recruit more.
To reach as many women and girls as possible, Liberia Women Democracy Radio is available in eight of Liberia's 15 counties. On air 12 hours a day, the station's programming ranges from live talk shows to almost 30 pre-produced programs and music that doesn't defame women.
Station Manager Tetee Karneh says many of the programs and the news are broadcast in simple Liberian English so it's easier for ordinary women to understand. She doesn't have any way of measuring the number of listeners.
The station also runs a research department and organizes community forums for women to share views.
Male Participation Encouraged
Men make up just under half of the station's 20 or so-person staff. That's partly due to the shortage of experienced female journalists but it's also done intentionally, to encourage male consideration of women's interests.
To boost women's numbers in newsrooms, the station has a training program that reaches seven female university students in three universities in Monrovia. Two of the station's working reporters--Tecee Boley and Ladymai Hunter--also receive continuing education through a pilot program called New Narratives, launched in July to link female journalists in Liberia for one-on-one training with veteran international reporters.
Tamasin Ford, country director of New Narratives, spends three days a month working with these reporters.
"The Liberian media is hugely male dominated and tends to focus on politics; male writers pontificating about issues many ordinary Liberians don't understand," she said. "Female journalists tend to focus on more of the human angle to a story; issues like HIV, gender-based violence, access to education and health, fistula, child labor, etc. Highlighting these types of issues will promote gender equality in Liberia."
Station Manager Karneh says Liberia Women Democracy Radio has shifted its reporting from covering formal politics to sharing the stories of real people.
Providing a Platform
Women are also turning to the station for help, says Estella Nelson, executive director of the Monrovia-based Liberia Women Media Action Committee, the station's parent organization. One woman, for example, was initiated into the sande society--a sacred traditional society for women--and underwent forced genital mutilation. She came to the station to share her story and demand justice. Her case is presently before the court in Monrovia, says Nelson.
However, the effort to boost women in journalism is up against bleak finances. Few journalists make much money at it, which shuts out many women with caretaking responsibilities, says Karneh. Liberia Women Democracy Radio pays its reporters an average of $125 a month, adds Karneh, a large sum in a country where almost 95 percent of the population lived on less than $2 a day in 2007, according to the World Bank Development Research Group.
Money was one reason why Janet Kpannah Sando, a 27-year-old student at the University of Liberia in Monrovia, decided against being a journalist; she saw no future in it. Instead, Sando is studying public administration.
Massa F. Kanneh, on the other hand, has decided to pursue journalism at the University of Liberia regardless of the obstacles. The 24-year-old junior says the number of other women in the department is dwindling as the year goes on. Many switch to majors such as management, sociology and accounting.
Kanneh is resolved, however, to keep at it. "I want to be a radio journalist because you can reach more people as a broadcaster. If you don't have radio, your neighbors have a radio. I want to inform the people," she said. "I will be broke, but I will not be poor."
Juhie Bhatia traveled to Liberia on an IRP Gatekeeper Editors trip organized by the International Reporting Project (IRP). She is managing editor of Women's eNews.