Malawi: Portraying women beyond victimhood

Date: May 22, 2015
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Blantyre, 22 May: The media in Malawi continues to perpetuate sexist and stereotypical representations of women. Look no further than the front page photos of Malawi’s daily newspapers- especially the coverage of the country’s recent floods: the photos depict women as victims, while men are portrayed as heroes or individuals who have powerfully endured the natural disaster.

In January 2015, Malawi experienced its worst flooding in history, leaving many displaced and approximately 200 dead. Since the tragic event, newspapers reported extensively on the damage; the rebuilding efforts; and relief offered to victims in the 15 districts that were affected.

The photographs on the pages dedicated to the plight of the flood victims generally showed women receiving various relief items, while those handing over the items were, in most cases, men. Other pictures showed women and children sleeping on floors and cooking meals, with captions describing them either as vulnerable or struggling with new born babies- generally represented as helpless victims and waiting to be rescued.

On the other hand, many photographs depicted men in more powerful and influential positions, and hardly any photos portrayed men victims. It is as if the victims were only women and children, and that the hopeless situation required men’s ‘powerful’ intervention. The media’s negative and stereotypical portrayal of women, only serves to entrench the marginalisation of women and ultimately perpetuates gender inequality.

The 2014 SADC Gender Protocol Barometer says: “As the fourth estate, media has a key role to play in holding government and other sectors accountable for their commitments to gender equality. Yet if unwatched, the media itself can potentially reverse the gains being made in other sectors. Due to its wide reach and ability to shape public opinion and discourse, it is important that media takes up its responsibility as an inclusive tool for democracy and voice in society.”

When one considers the way in which the media persistently portrays women, it is evident that the watchdog is not being watched and may in fact be undoing the gains made towards achieving gender equality. Malawi ratified the SADC Gender Protocol in 2013, which requires media houses to advance gender equality in practice and structure. The Protocol urges the media to produce content that challenges stereotyping of women. “Acknowledge the lack of women’s voices in the media and the need to give women equal voice. The media is also encouraged to desist from perpetuating gender stereotypes especially in advertising, entertainment and coverage of gender violence.”

Media houses that perpetuate negative stereotypes should be held to account. The status quo needs to change- we need to watch the watchdog. Citizens and government must be critical of media content and should ensure media houses follow policies and regulations for balanced and fair reporting. Being powerful tools for socialisation, the media must instead dismantle stereotypes and advance equality in all coverage and information they disseminate.

Laureen Makoza is a freelance journalist and gender activist in Blantyre. This article is part of the Gender Links News Service, which is part of the Women and Media campaign in partnership with UNESCO and the Global Alliance on Media and Gender (GAMAG). Next week’s theme is Employment and Women’s Participation in Media.



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