Media Stereotypes and the Scourge of Violence Against Women: Introduction by EJN Director

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Aidan White

This conference is the first regional action of Turning the Page of Hate in African Media, a campaign launched last month in Kigali to mark 20 years since the Rwandan genocide.

Although much has improved across Africa since 1994 – significant social and economic progress, signs that democracy is taking root, and greater respect for human rights – some elements of crisis remain stubbornly in place.

In many countries there is the growth of political intolerance; there are still outbreaks of community violence and conflict; and the rights of women and minorities, at the heart of our discussions today, exist at best in fragile conditions.

Indeed, the Kigali meeting was itself overshadowed by a stunning example of hatred and violence. One of our key speakers couldn’t attend because his two daughters were among the more than 200 girls abducted in Nigeria by the armed group Boko Haram.

That event, which took some days to register on the agenda of the international media, was not just another act of terror and violence by religious fanatics; it was all the more shocking because it targeted vulnerable young women.

It confirmed that violence against women begins in childhood. It reinforced the prejudices of societies where families show a preference for sons over daughters; where sons are often fed better and are more likely to be educated; and where discrimination leads to girls growing up to become women of low self-esteem, who perpetuate a continuing cycle of violence.

The Nigeria attack at first seems utterly senseless – it did not target any political opponents or make an ideological statement against rival systems – but, of course, it did have purpose. It was a clear statement of what this group stands for. Its targeting of young women was a ruthless message to the people and confirmed its intention to use terror and intimidation to create a disciplined, subservient society.

Our Turning the Page of Hate Campaign, supported by Africa’s leading groups of editors and journalists, including the International Association of Women in Radio and Television and the Uganda Journalists’ Union, is a commitment from media professionals to work to counter such extremism and intolerance.

Our aim is to raise awareness in journalism of the need to put hate speech in context and to remove incitement to intense hatred and violence from public discourse.

The role of journalism and media in helping to find solutions to this problem cannot be over-stated. Media can help to shape public opinion for action in favour of positive action to defend women’s rights by telling the story of gender violence through the ethical, careful and sensitive prism of quality journalism..

But, to begin, we should recognise an important truth that although there is a long-standing tradition of inequality between men and women in Africa, the crisis of violence against women is not an Africa problem, it is a global problem.

Even in the most settled democracies media struggle to tell the story of gender violence against a background of stereotypes, bias and entrenched prejudice.

For instance, evidence to the recent Leveson inquiry into the British press revealed the weakness of media coverage of the high levels of violence against women in the United Kingdom. Evidence from women’s groups revealed that

  • In the UK almost one in three girls experience unwanted sexual touching at school and around 3.7 million women have been sexually assaulted at some point since the age of 16,
  • Every year one million women experience at least one incident of domestic violence – that’s nearly 20,000 women a week,
  • There are also many incidents of forced marriage; honour killings; and an estimated 17,000 migrant women are involved in off-street prostitution, many of them the victims of trafficking and intimidation, and
  • Each year tens of thousands of women are subject to female genital mutilation.

Despite this grim statistical background they provided compelling arguments about how some media, on the back of uninformed and biased coverage, fail to tell these stories in context. There is too often the descent into sensationalism, which is driven by commercial imperatives that promote the use of stereotypes.

In Africa, there are similar problems, but the crisis is magnified.

Although female genital mutilation is outlawed in many places it remains a highly accepted tradition in many countries.

In addition, the use of rape as a weapon of war has been a shocking reality of many of the conflicts which have scarred the continent over the past twenty years.

But physical violence is also a common feature of domestic life. In some countries, In Tanzania and Ethiopia, for instance, studies reveal that more than 50 per cent of women have been raped or beaten in their own home by their male partner.

Changing the reality of these lives requires a massive change in public thinking in societies where there are deeply entrenched attitudes about the role of men and women in the community.

This is not easy at the best of times, but it has been made more difficult in recent years because of a worrying trend across Africa, where religious fundamentalist views are taking hold.

In some areas this is not just a problem of fringe extremists, like those in Nigeria but it is becoming part of the mainstream of political culture.

In the past decade religious fundamentalists have used women’s rights as a “soft target” in their moves to capture social and political power across Africa. The invasion of northern Mali in early 2012, for instance, saw women among the first victims of fundamentalist policy with edicts policing women’s dress codes and labour in public. In Tunisia the new revolution has also brought with it growing restrictions on women’s dress and freedom of movement.

These trends are warning signs, of the possibility of a shift towards intolerant and violent enforcement of deeply sexist ways of ordering society.

And this is not just a threat in Muslim societies. Laws controlling women’s dress under the Anti-Pornography Act in Uganda was developed in the name of highly conservative expressions of Christian morality, alongside much criticised legislation expanding anti-gay laws and the criminalisation of same-gender sexual acts.

Rising populist fundamentalism has encouraged a range of religious actors to advance sexist and homophobic ideas among their followers, and also to make strategic linkages with the state.

This evolving intolerance and the social conservatism behind it provides the context for media reporting. Journalists and editors must make themselves aware of the threats these developments pose to democracy and universal principles of equality and human rights.

Media can play a significant part in changing attitudes by more ethical and comprehensive reporting and by supporting more action at all levels in society to nourish and protect the rights of women and minorities.

Greater exposure of the scale and causes of violence against women and more investigation of the means needed to tackle it, will strengthen public attachment to ethical journalism. But media must be proactive, and journalists should be given the time and resources to carry out research so they are able to cover this story in a comprehensive manner, examining the cultural pressures at work and giving voice to the victims of violence.

Regrettably, though, that is easier said than done.

Rather than put in the time and effort needed to do good work, many media turn to sensationalism and stereotypes, often for commercial reasons, when they tell the stories of women’s’ lives.

This meeting will examine how to tackle this problem in Uganda. Our aim is to get media back on track, to strengthen the ethical base of journalism and to build public trust in an information system that can truly deliver a progressive and confident future for both men and women.


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Photo credit: Flickr CC Robbert van der Steeg