(WOMENSENEWS)–In daily newspapers across the world, stories are filed from foreign correspondents on assignment in war-torn Darfur in Western Sudan while London or New York analysts propose solutions to a conflict they’ll never see.
But on the ground, from Khartoum to Kordufan to the center of Darfur in El Fasher, local female journalists are telling the story to their own people. With an influx of female university graduates in all fields from agriculture to engineering, journalism is open to them as long as they can pass the national journalism accreditation exam.
With new newspapers starting up across the country, both supporting and criticizing the government, there are more opportunities for young women in the field than ever before.
Writing for the Arabic daily newspaper Al Watan, “Our World,” one of them is Nadra Mahdi, who has spent her short but vibrant journalism career bringing the stories of suffering women to the forefront of Sudanese society.
A 1999 graduate of linguistics from the University of Khartoum, 28-year-old Madhi didn’t intend to have a reporter’s life. But four years ago, she knew she had a story to tell and soon found the stories of others who needed a voice.
She first went to Al Watan to find a place to publish her poems, a passion she’d had for years. During her interview the editor in chief encouraged her to take the certification exam. With a mentor’s help, she passed and went into full-time journalism in 2003.
Her writing style isn’t that of a hound-dog journalist but one closer to a friend giving advice, using examples from the lives of people you know. Her style has propelled her career forward as her editor allows her a hand in the women’s pages and on features specifically about the poor.
Stories From the Camps
On assignment at the Abu Shook camp last year in Darfur, she interviewed and wrote stories about women afraid of rape and attacks while they gather firewood away from the camps. But they continue to do it, she says, because they fear their husbands will be killed if they were to fetch wood instead.
“It’s a great challenge working in a war area,” says Mahdi. “It’s even harder being a woman because there is always the fear of rape, kidnapping, arrest or being sent away by the army or one of the rebel movements.”
While on assignment she has gone at times without enough water or food but says her biggest frustration is that those in the camps willing to tell their stories prefer foreign journalists. Darfurians don’t trust the local media, she says, because they fear the government will keep the story quiet.
With the government cracking down on news that could incite violence in a disaster area, everything is under scrutiny, Mahdi says. Victims in Darfur instead choose to tell their stories to the foreign press in hopes the same kind of censorship won’t stand in the way.
For a reporter who has spent the past four years working to bring everyday struggles of women and children, the poor and distraught, to the front page of her newspaper, this kind of affront from her own people pushes Mahdi even harder.
“Working in Darfur is nothing like any other experience as a journalist. The situation is different but the people are also. Everything is up or down but you still try to seek the truth. And you try your best to be professional in the way you treat people so you can find the story,” she says.
These days, Mahdi describes the situation in much of Darfur as worsening chaos. With factions splintering off from other factions, the lines are constantly blurring. The war started four years ago, primarily as an inter-tribal conflict over dwindling resources from Lake Chad. Government militia were sent in to handle the situation, but quickly lost control when they began looting and burning villages.
Aid groups estimate the displaced population in Darfur as high as 2 million with as many as 300,000 dead during the conflict. Several attempts by the United Nations, African Union, regional leaders and U.S. leaders have failed to broker a lasting resolution.
Now in her own writings–and in radio reports on Radio Omdurman, a local radio station, and as an occasional correspondent for an Egyptian TV station–she is pushing to bring all of the factions under a single peace agreement to replace a now-derailed agreement signed last year in Abuja, Nigeria.
She is also flagging other issues for her fellow Sudanese.
While on assignment in the eastern Sudanese state of Kordufan, Mahdi reported on the chaos brought about by desertification there.
“They’ve lost their lives and their children there in the sand. Years ago, women would harvest the crops and care for the sheep and camels. Now there is nothing. No food, no milk, no vegetables. The women just sit around waiting for their sons to bring them money,” she says.
“It is different from Darfur because the stories there are about the war that has affected everyone in the region. The main issue is war and peace. But in Kordufan, it is a problem of environment and a lack of services in the villages.”
A Personal Fight
The same problems repeat themselves for people in other regions, even in the capital Khartoum. One of her personal fights is for the female tea-sellers in the street, often harassed by police despite having nowhere else to go.
“Most of these women lost their husbands in the war or they have a disability. But the police don’t let them sell the tea in the streets, and they don’t know what to do. I write about them in my pages so they can find help. Sometimes from ministers, sometimes from businessmen who let them sell clothes or Sudanese perfume,” she says.
Her passion for women’s issues led the editor in chief to assign her as editor of Al Watan’s women’s page, which covers substantive news and opinion.
On her page, she writes against female genital mutilation in line with the newspaper’s editorial policy against the practice, but she takes the story further by convincing ministers to get involved with her fight.
The page also allows her freedom to raise other issues, such as the economic pressures that lead girls to become second or third wives to married men even as younger men are not able to take wives at all. Pressures manifest as an extra mouth the family can’t or won’t feed, a marriage dowry or the tradition that a woman over 24 is getting too old to marry. Mahdi encourages women to educate themselves and go to the workplace instead.
At the same time, it’s those kinds of economic pressures that Mahdi says has led so many Sudanese women into journalism. Ten years ago, female journalists were extremely scarce but as more girls and women shed tradition to find work, journalism benefited.
“International pressures are forcing Sudan to open up and along with that comes the need for communicators. And women are going for it,” she says.
Meghan Sapp is European correspondent for Women’s eNews. She is a freelance journalist based in Brussels, Belgium, and writes primarily on trade, development and agriculture issues.
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For more information:
“Health Care Oasis Develops for Women in Sudan”:
“‘Lost Girls’ in U.S. Struggle to Find Their Way”:
“Help Stop Violence Against Women in Darfur”:
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