Colleen Lowe Morna

(WOMENSENEWS)–Pick up any newspaper in southern Africa and chances are that the vast majority of stories filling its pages are written by men about other men.

In two southern African countries–South Africa and Zambia–women’s advocates and media associations are working together to change that.

In South Africa, Gender Links, a South Africa-based organization that promotes gender equality in and through the media, teamed up with the Media Institute of Southern Africa, which supports an independent press in the region, to conduct a study of women in mainstream news coverage.

In Lusaka, Zambia, women from the Zambia Media Women’s Association formed a taskforce, which is working with the Press Association of Zambia, a voluntary association of journalists, to combat sexual harassment in news organizations. Both efforts aim to ensure that women in southern Africa are respected in newsrooms and in newsprint.

Women Only 17 Percent of News Sources

The Gender Links and Media Institute of Southern Africa joint initiative–called the Gender and Media Baseline Study–quantified women’s absence from media coverage. Over a one-month period, researchers analyzed more than 25,000 news items from 114 print and broadcast media outlets in 12 countries in southern Africa. The study found that only 17 percent of news sources were female. Women wrote only 22 percent of the newspaper coverage, although they make up 52 percent of the population.

When women constitute half or more of the population and only 17 percent of the news, “we are simply getting a lopsided and inaccurate view of the world,” said Colleen Lowe Morna, executive director of Gender Links, in an e-mail interview with Women’s eNews.

Women are most likely to be heard in news stories covering gender equality, gender violence or entertainment, according to the study. But even among these topics, more men than women were used as sources. In politics, economics and sports stories–which add up to almost half of all the coverage surveyed–women constituted less than 10 percent of the sources.

When a woman’s words do make their way into the news, she is most likely to be a beauty contestant, sex worker or homemaker. These three occupations were the only categories where women’s views dominated.

“One of the reasons given for the heavy dominance of male views is because men predominate in positions of power,” said Morna. “But is the media just about those who make and enforce decisions, or those affected by them? If both–which is just good journalism–then we can’t help but find the voices of women.”

Outreach to Mainstream Media

Gender Links and the Media Institute of Southern Africa have used the findings to bring that message to mainstream media. In June and August, they held two-day workshops in each of the 12 countries included in the study, targeting media owners, editors and reporters as well as media associations, regulatory agencies and women’s organizations.

This is not Gender Links’ first foray into workshops and training. Cindy Wirtz, a TV reporter for the Seychelles Broadcasting Corporation, a public television and radio broadcaster in Mahe, Seychelles, attended Gender Links’ training on covering gender violence last November. She said it taught her much about gender violence and about how to approach news coverage in general.

“Now, whenever I work on a story in whatever area, I always try to bring a gender aspect into it,” she said in an e-mail interview with Women’s eNews. “I try to give a fair chance to both sexes to explain their views and give their opinions in order to get a balanced story.” While there has been some press coverage of the research and its implications, Jennifer Mufune, a coordinator for the Media Institute of Southern Africa, said the response has been uneven. “The other side has been that some media do not see what the fuss is all about,” she said in an e-mail interview with Women’s eNews. “These are the ones we need to get on board.”

Challenging Newsroom Harassment

Female journalists in Zambia are also working to change prevailing attitudes in newsrooms. The Zambia Media Women’s Association says many female journalists are sexually harassed at work, though they may not call sexual advances, unwanted touching and other inappropriate conduct by that name.

“Here in Africa, men take so many things for granted,” said Olga Manda, a free-lance journalist in Zambia. “Sometimes you find that a male workmate comes and touches your waist, some would even pat you on the buttocks and think they are joking with you.”

Sharon Mwalongo, chair of the Zambia Media Women’s Association, said many people in Zambia think sexual harassment is synonymous with rape, which discourages women from reporting it. Women who do report the abuse often find themselves under scrutiny.

“People in Zambia tend to focus on the appearance of the female victim,” said Sara Ngwenya, a Zambian journalist, “and question the way she was dressed and even the way she walks.” The Press Association of Zambia says it will work closely with the Zambia Media Women’s Association taskforce to help women report the abuse. “Men should not have an excuse for sexually harassing a woman,” said Susan Musukuma, president of the press association.

With the launch of two pilot projects–one with the Mauritius Broadcasting Corporation and the other with the Sunday Times of Zimbabwe–Gender Links is also trying to improve the work environment for female journalists. The organization is helping the two news outlets create gender policies that will improve women’s representation, not only in editorial content, but in the newsrooms as well.

This outreach is crucial, said Morna, not just in improving women’s representation in Southern Africa media, but to improve the status of women as a whole.

“Women and men are still far from equal politically, socially, economically . . . The major challenge now is shifting mindsets,” said Morna, “And there is probably no greater force on earth today for changing the way people think than the media.”

Shauna Curphey is a law student and freelance writer living in Long Beach, Calif.

For more information:

Gender Links–
“Gender and Media Baseline Study 2003”: