Media essential to fifty percent women in leadership by 2015

Date: January 1, 1970
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With elections in 10 countries over the next three years, the Southern African Development Community (SADC) has the opportunity to make great strides towards increasing the numbers of women in parliaments and other key decision-making posts in national government structures. How women politicians and media relate to each other, is an important part of whether this happens or not.

So far, increasing women in governance has moved at a snail’s pace. The recent signing of the SADC Protocol on Gender and Development raises state commitment from the 30% agreed in 1997 to 50%, despite the fact that, 11 years on, only five countries in the region (Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, Tanzania, and most recently, Angola) have attained the 30% target in parliament.
The picture is similar at the local government level, with only three countries having reached and exceeded the 30% target (Namibia, South Africa and Tanzania) and Lesotho having exceeded the 50% mark with 58% women in local government.
Over the next five years, Gender Links, a regional organisation which promotes equality and justice for women, is working 14 SADC countries, where there will be national and local elections, to build capacity and encourage interaction between women politicians and the media. Beginning with Malawi in the second week of November, and in Botswana and South Africa shortly after, this will provide a unique opportunity to campaign for the 50/50 target.
The new initiative is a replication of a programme in 2004 and 2005, in which GL embarked on gender and democracy training in seven SADC countries holding or expected to hold elections in those years. The purpose of the training with media practitioners, as well as politicians, was twofold; to engage with media to assist them in understanding how gender equality is integral to citizenship, democracy and freedom of expression, as well as train women politicians to build relations with the media and to empower them with practical skills to engage with the media.
The 2004/ 2005 training followed Gender Links’ first ever study on the impact of women in politics in the region: “Ringing up the Changes: Gender in Southern African Politics.”  One of the findings of the qualitative study was that understanding and being able to work with the media is key for women politicians to leverage themselves more effectively.
While the long-term jury may still be out on the difference gender and democracy training for the media and women politicians makes, the 2004/ 2005 training created conversations between the two. According to Loga Virahsawmy, Chairperson of the Media Watch Organisation (MWO) in Mauritius, the training done with journalists and politicians in her country during the 2005 elections was one of the most important workshops on gender and democracy issues.
“The key to the workshop’s success,” Virahsawmy says, “is the participation of high level politicians especially the leaders of political parties, since they are the gatekeepers for women’s entry into politics.” In the 2005 elections in Mauritius the representation of women increased by just over 11% from 5.6 to 17%. 
Women’s political participation is a problematic area of reporting and media underrepresented and sometimes misrepresents the views of these women in the media. According to Paula Fray, the Africa Regional Director of the Inter Press Service (IPS) global news agency, women politicians occupy a low profile in the media and there is often a hostile relationship with the media that is considered unfriendly to women. 
IPS global news agency is also involved in training its Africa network of journalists and women politicians on how to engage the media in their From Polls to Polls programmes which is about strengthening the voices and visibility of women in elections. They train journalists to cover elections from a gender perspective with a broader focus on political processes and not merely elections as events. 
According to Fray, an evaluation of this process takes place on a continuous basis as the agency’s reporters receive on-line training and guidance daily from the IPS Africa Editor. A formal evaluation of the first formal training of journalists and women politicians conducted in November 2007 found participating women politicians showed a better understanding of the media and higher levels of confidence in dealing with them. 
Journalists reported improved efforts to seek out the views of women and a better understanding of women politicians and the challenges that they face in the media.  While politicians did see an increase in media’s coverage, they believe that journalists still favour men and that the media needs to be transformed in a more holistic way.
Research points to the need for such training for media. The Gender and Media Baseline Study (GMBS) conducted in 2003 in twelve Southern African countries by GL and the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA) showed that women in general constitute, on average, 17% of news sources. This increased by 2% to 19% for the Southern African region in the Global Media Monitoring (GMMP), coordinated by the World Association of Christian Communications (WACC), which took place in 2005. 
And even where women are present in occupations, such as politicians, their voices are not heard in the same proportion as their representation. For example, in the GMBS, of all the politician sources, only 8% were women, and this figure doubled to 16% in the GMMP.  However, neither of these figures reflects the strength of women in parliaments where the regional average has ranged from 19 to 20% between 2005 and 2008.    
With the region currently undergoing so many changed in governments, it is time that this change includes ensuring that women are at the decision-making table. As a cornerstone of democracy, media is a vital part of this.
Susan Tolmay is the Gender and Governance Manager at Gender Links. This article is part of the Gender Links Opinion and Commentary Service that provides fresh views on everyday news.

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