Daring to be different: youth and gender awareness in Southern Africa

Daring to be different: youth and gender awareness in Southern Africa

Date: October 20, 2010
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We are officially in the Decade of African Women. The launch last week in Nairobi, adopted by the African Union (AU), is an apt moment to consider the realities of African girls who will become women between 2010 and 2020. The Fourth Gender and Media Summit organised by Gender Links was also held last week and provided a much-needed space to explore issues of youth and gender in Southern Africa.

What are young girls’ thoughts and feelings on gender and the media? Pretty Skihonde, Mpumi Msibi, Kayla Xhethu and Nhlanhla Mbulawa are a group of energetic Grade Nine school girls from Johannesburg. They unanimously agree that they see more women than men on television, which is their only media source. Yet this perceived increase of women in the media does not necessarily translate to gender-aware representations.

Xhethu says that most women on television have fashionable hairstyles, wear make-up, heels and the most expensive fashion. The students think that more women than men are on television because “women can dress up” (Mbulawa), “women, they can look more – eish – more interesting than men” (Skihonde) and “women are more attractive, more vibing, more beauty than men” (Xhethu).

The young girls’ comments centre on women’s physical characteristics and this is telling of the stereotypical ways that women are represented in the media. It also indicates the way young girls seem to understand gender roles.

As the Gender in Media Education (GIME) report by Gender Links shows, sexism in the media starts from the classroom and is transported to the newsroom – but it doesn’t end there. The (sometimes) stereotypical media productions from newsrooms feed back into the lives of learners in classrooms and so the cycle continues.

There is an indication of resistance of these stereotypes by some young girls. For example, Sikhonde, who dreams of being an actress says, “I wana do my own thing, which is unique – different from others.” How can we create a social environment for Sikhonde and girls like her to dare to be different? What action can gender activists take for African girls in the present to ensure a more promising and equitable future?

At the GEM Summit, discussions took place regarding gender mainstreaming and media training. One aim of these sessions was to explore ways of integrating gender into teaching and learning at higher education institutions, particularly in media departments.

Professor Emily Brown, Head of Department at the Polytechnic of Namibia presented on “High school teachers and journalism educator’s awareness of gender”. A collaborative project between the Polytechnic, UNESCO, the Ministry of Education and other organisations created a gender training tool kit that is truly responsive to a Namibian context. This toolkit was based on the results of a survey conducted with educators in Windhoek, Okahandja and Rehoboth.

One of the findings was that almost half of the educators had not read something recently which focused on gender. Patricia Made, an independent media consultant commented, “Where would educators do this? Most of the discussions on gender are targeted to the government and the media” rather than educational institutions. If the educators of African girls and boys are not aware of gender, what more can we say about their students?

One of the SADC Protocol on Gender and Development targets, to be achieved by 2015, is to “adopt and implement gender-sensitive educational policies and programmes addressing gender stereotypes in education”. How can we take this target off paper and into a practical training program?

Mila Kimbuini, a Congolese journalist and delegate at the GEM Summit told participants that in September 2010, the Ministry of Education of the Democratic Republic of Congo implemented a system to mainstream gender into primary school curriculum. For 45 minutes every week, students from Grade Three to Grade Six, in both public and private schools, learn about issues relating to water treatment, the ecosystem and gender.

Is a student ever too young to learn about gender? If implemented correctly, Brown believes that “topics around gender and introducing them earlier would make learners more sensitive on other issues that hinge on gender.” She emphasises that gender is a cross-cutting issue that would raise pressing concerns such as poverty, employment and the legal system. “We really need to re-visit our curriculum and see the need for gender to be mainstreamed – or incorporated at least – that in itself would be a good start.”

Mona Hakimi is the Communications Programme Assistant at Gender Links. This article is part of the GL Opinion and Commentary Service.



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