Media can help bring 365 days of no violence

Date: January 1, 1970
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As a gender activist, you know it is that time of the year again when suddenly every journalist starts calling to talk about gender-based violence (GBV). For many writers, the annual 16 Days of Activism campaign held from 25 November to 10 December has become a seasonal beat whose only challenge is how to come up with new and different angles that fit in with that year’s theme.

Suddenly, everyone is eager to write a headline-grabbing story on the subject. Gender activists provide on-call sources that need little research and preparation to interview. And once the campaign is over, interest in GBV instantly goes into hibernation until the next year. 
This cyclic type of reporting has resulted in the media being part of the reason why gender violence just will not go away from our homes, workplaces and places of worship, thus hindering the noble efforts of gender activists. Coverage of GBV is ad hoc and invariably depends on gender activists to initiate by organising activities or workshops to which reporters are invited.
In Zimbabwe for instance, the media flurry of GBV stories focuses mainly on what various women’s groups are highlighting during a particular campaign.  All that readers, listeners and viewers get to know is what activities the organisations have lined up, and which high-ranking government official attended the opening ceremony to read a prepared speech.
Media rarely captures the voices of ordinary women and men who are the survivors and perpetrators of GBV.  During a recent discussion on the merits of gender mainstreaming in media, male journalists explained away the trend of stifling ordinary voices as “too much work.” They argued that given Zimbabwe’s endless list of shortages – cash, fuel, food and telecommunications hitches, “looking for alternative sources is too time consuming. Why not rely on tried and tested activists who will give you brilliant quotes?”
According to these journalists, the absence of ordinary women and men talking about GBV during the 16 Days campaign is really an “economic issue.” The net effect of this reasoning among media practitioners is that media usually fails to stimulate meaningful discussion on GBV that could lead to a change in the lives of victims by influencing policy changes.
Last year for instance, the passing of the Domestic Violence Act in Zimbabwe was a news point.  However, during the course of this year, the media has rarely updated its audiences on what effect, if any, this piece of legislation is having on GBV figures.
Economic considerations aside, the media can shoulder part of the blame for the continued prevalence of GBV in our society, despite well thought out and implemented awareness campaigns.  By sticking to official sources and confining themselves to events based reports, journalists fail to breathe life into and take the 16 Days campaign to the people.
Recently, a Zimbabwean daily, The Chronicle carried a story of a woman who beat up her domestic worker for allegedly cooking with “holy water” that she had obtained after a long wait from a prophet.  The woman had sought the help of a prophet in a desperate attempt to solve her marital problems. Save for a cartoon, there was no follow-up to tell readers why the woman needed “holy water?” Why for instance did she resort to a prophet and not a marriage counselor or her relatives to help work out the problems with her husband, as is usually the norm?
Such shallow reporting happens despite intensive training of media practitioners on how to mainstream gender into their reporting.  Critical questions of why certain events are occurring go unasked.  There is a need to question the gender dimensions of such a story to give a full perspective. Worse, when journalist venture into GBV coverage it is often stereotyped and more often than not, women are blamed and their experiences, however painful, trivialised.
Most cases of GBV only come to light in court.  These cases are reported as isolated incidents with no attempt made to give readers an idea of how widespread various forms of GBV are, underlying causes and what is being done to try reduce the incidence of GBV. Such reports tend to focus on what the complainant – usually a woman – did that prompted the accused to react.  Usually only the trial is covered and readers are left wondering what became of such cases.
The media should and can go beyond covering issues of domestic and gender-based violence during the 16 Days Campaign and make coverage of GBV a 365-Day affair.  Journalists who come up with well-researched and thought provoking stories carrying a variety of opinions will give readers a wide range of views to consider, and reflect the reality of the gender violence that exists in our society.
With a little bit of effort, the media can become a critical participant in reducing GBV. By taking the time to listen to the tales of ordinary women and men who experience such violence and provoking public debate, media can influence the thinking of legislators on issues of GBV throughout the year.
Miriam Madziwa is a freelance journalist based in Zimbabwe. 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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