Information through media is power

Date: January 1, 1970
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In many ways, the media has been an effective way to reach and get information to women who are experiencing gender-based violence (GBV) and any other form of gender inequality. Moreover, the 16 Days of Activism against GBV underlines the importance of reaching women with these information campaigns.

However, in many parts of Africa, there is a more complex aspect to having access to information. This includes the difficulties many women experience in gaining access to the means of information itself – be that a radio or television set, newspapers or magazines.
The media is one of the few places where violence against women can be spoken about publicly, thereby giving the larger society the chance to own the problem, rather than isolating the women who are its victims. While most GBV happens within the home or perpetrated by men known to women, in conflict-affected areas of the continent, sexual violence and abuse is widespread, generally known about and often perpetrated in public.
Yet, the public perpetration of the crime does not mean that there is community acknowledgement of what has happened within their midst (unlike, say, the kidnapping of children and men or incidences of looting). Nor is there much impetus to offer community support and deal with it as a collective with a common interest. The isolation and shame that this silence brings about for its female survivors is a constant aspect of all contexts of GBV – and when women have visibly (or publicly) been targeted the silence and ostracism is often greater.
Research across the world consistently shows how important media coverage of GBV is for abused women. It is an invaluable way to break out of their isolation, and around the world battered women have spoken of how they have been given hope to act by hearing the story of another survivor of domestic violence.
Similarly, rape and incest survivors have consistently reported getting information on contacting medical and psycho-social support through articles that they’ve read. In addition, these articles are valuable in letting women know that they are not alone and that the emotions they are experiencing are common to abused women.
However, in many destitute parts of Africa, before abused women can access to specific programmes on GBV, they first have to be able to switch on the radio or television set, or read the paper. Very often, the husband controls access to the television, radio or newspaper – including being the authority figure to defer to on the choice of programme or whether media enters the home at all. Similarly, if a woman or girl is suffering abuse at home (and most often this takes place at the hands of somebody she knows and who lives in the house), it puts her in further danger of violence if she is found listening or reading about GBV.
Privacy is an important aspect of targeting of GBV programmes – since being found listening or reading about the issues almost automatically denotes that you’re experiencing GBV. The stigma and shame abused women feel – in that they have to hide and explain away to others what is happening to them – lies at the heart of targeting audiences for GBV programmes.
This is not to discount or discredit the ways that women have benefited from programmes on violence against women. Radio continues to be one of the most accessible forms of media on the continent and is invaluable across Africa. Not only does radio provide news and information, but good talk shows have the potential to be the forum at which community and civic concerns are raised and debated. (Unfortunately, many local stations are top-heavy with music and DJs who want to sound like bad American copies of themselves.)
In the almost near-absence of health and social support services across much of the continent, information in the media can – in very limited ways – give information on basic services. Imagine a woman in one of displaced camps for Darfuris. How does she begin to deal with the experience of mass rape and displacement? How would she get information on accessing abortion services and post-exposure prophylaxis – except through a radio? How will she know where to access medical and psychological help if she’s fled her home?
Producing cheaper technology – like wind-up radios and solar-powered radio sets – do not deal with the complexity of giving women access to the means of information. If women are experiencing domestic violence, for example, it does not get around the levels of control and constant threats in their lives.
In many areas, there have been innovative ways to deal with this – including giving women’s associations a radio where they can listen to programmes and give feedback to programme makers. There have also been examples of radio stations going into displaced camps in northern Uganda, playing programmes to the communities and facilitating discussions on a topical issue. Similarly, teaching women to make effective media about their own lives will go a long way to giving them a platform.
At the same time, having access to the means of information will have a direct result in women being able to exercise their voice and their votes in public participation. War-affected women, for example, can have access to information on post-war policies that directly shape their lives. It’s only when campaigners take into account the lack of access to the means of information for African women, that they will effectively be able to start a conversation with the continent’s abused and war-affected women.
Karen Williams is a journalist who works in Africa and Asia. This article is part of a series produced by the Gender Links Opinion and Commentary Service for the Sixteen Days of Activism.

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