Affirmative action needed to transform media

Date: November 17, 2009
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This was very different to the past, when men who attended such functions came to do business as photographers, taxi drivers, journalists, or hawk merchandise. So seeing men as participants in this forum was really refreshing and encouraging. For once, I thought, we were moving in the right direction.
But remarks made by two men participating at this festival and another by a don in a local university based in Dar es Salaam convinced me beyond doubt that it is not yet time to celebrate men’s support of the gender movement. It also sent a strong message that we are dealing with individuals or institutions that lack management will and commitment. Women must be strategic to win this cause.
During one of the key media events where Gender Links launched its Glass Ceiling report showing the low representation of women in Tanzania media (36% compared to 64% men), a male participant could not understand why the arguments for gender parity.
“In our company we never look at employees as women or men during recruitment or promotions. Consideration is based purely on performance and capability,À said a senior manager in one of the established Tanzania media houses. He went further to argue that gender parity would bring chaos in the society if cultural and traditional practices did not inform such measures.
Two kilometers away, a don at a local university was also opposed to introducing the gender topic in his institute of mass communication. “The moment you start looking at issues from a gender perspective, then you are sending a message that women need preferential treatment,À he said.
He argued that he considers his staff based on their capability and not gender since some of the women are doing better than their male counterparts are. The same don could not however explain why the majority of those proceeding to do masters degrees and PhDs were men, when over 70% of his student population was female. The arguments fronted by these men are the very reasons why we have pervasive and malignant sexism and the gender quagmire our society finds itself in today.
Within the media and other sectors of the society, these arguments are the ones that make it difficult for women, as Prof Ali Mazrui describes in his writings on the Black woman and the Problems of Gender, to be centered, liberated, and empowered. Their dismissal of the idea of affirmative action, gender quotas, or any measures designed to bring about gender parity or fairness in recruitment, promotion or granting of benefits is based purely on fear and not concrete evidence.
Such men pursue two strategies – arguments of capability and instilling fear in people that gender parity will bring about problems – to frustrate efforts to ensure justice is done in correcting past gender injustices. In Kenya, for instance, the retired President Moi vigorously campaigned against affirmative action, claiming it will make women appear less intelligent compared to men. He gave examples of women who had succeeded purely on their capability and without such measures.
He branded women who had gone to Beijing in 1995 to push for gender justice as advocating for a new sexual orientation – lesbians and gays. With that, he belittled the good intentions of the Beijing Platform for Action. Other cronies in his government also started moving around the country arguing that women should only be considered for jobs based on their capability and not affirmative action.
They told a scared public that affirmative action was going to wreck families as women took over leadership of households. Fear and competence again became the critical strategies to win the support of the public.
Like the Kenyan case, men in Tanzania are also hiding behind the argument that appreciating gender issues is itself propagating gender discrimination and people should be evaluated based on their capabilities only. Such arguments are partially to blame for the slow implementation of key instruments such as the SADC Protocol on Gender and Development by many institutions including the media.
Relying on the goodwill of these influential, but gender blind men to push for the gender agenda will therefore be futile. That is why I advocate for external interventions to make such gender insensitive men and their institutions embrace gender justice. These interventions will come in the form of policies, guidelines and legislations. The proposed development of Gender Policies for Southern African Media, which Gender Links is driving, is a case in point.
Partly to blame for this low representation of women is lack of policies to compel unyielding individuals and institutions to put in place measures that will guarantee gender fairness within media houses. In such a scenario, women and gender sensitive men must continue making noise, utilising their networks effectively as well as leaning on key figures in the media, private and government sectors to push for gender agenda in the media industry. Different strategies to inform actions at individual media houses and industry levels will have to be formulated if change is to happen.
Arthur Okwemba is a Kenyan journalist with the African Woman and Child Feature Service. This article is part of the Gender Links Opinion and Commentary Service that provides fresh views on everyday news.

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