Media needs to step up coverage on gender issues all year round

Date: January 1, 1970
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Media did not invent gender inequalities or any form of social inequality for that matter. Yet media is central to both knowingly and unwittingly promoting gender inequalities. By providing a particular set of representations, media feeds off and feeds into social assumptions and practices that ultimately undermine the advancement of women.

Media is central to how people understand themselves and those around them. Media is a social institution that ultimately reflects power relations in that society.
A South African National Editors Forum (SANEF) study found out that there is a glass ceiling for women in the media. This was no surprise to me. It simply confirmed that one area where transformation has not happened and is not going to happen quickly is in the media.
Attempts to strengthen the role of women in the media have been minimally successful. Around 2000, media houses aggressively cut costs and sharpened their commercial strategies. Times Media Limited (now Johnnic Communications) canned its attempt to launch the first sports daily, and with it the first woman editor of a daily. As Independent Newspapers restructured and many women editors lost their positions.
While it was in the context of commercially driven restructuring that women lost editorial positions, except for a few recent cases, these were not regained. Rather, black men have been the beneficiaries of this commercially driven transformation in the media industry. It appears that there are gender, race and class elements to the dynamics of the media’s transformation.
These dynamics extend past who is making images in the media to what images editors are making, especially with regard to gender. As the commercial strategies intensified with men as editors, dominating ownership and management structures, it appears that women are being ‘undressed’ more and more.
In the last few years, there are more images of women represented in the skimpiest of clothing in the media than before. Images of women that emphasise their bodies and flesh in a sexualised fashion or as objects for men to ‘admire’ have increased.
The back page photo has become permanent and editors ignored all attempts to persuade them to drop them, driven by the desire to attract audiences. Beauty contests have increased, so have social pages, which focus on women’s bodies and dress, as well as female celebrities who are ‘sexy’ or dressed ‘provocatively’.
As media content becomes ever sexier, it appears that attention to constitutional imperatives for gender equality is reduced to official platitudes or the month of August in particular 9 August National Women’s Day and the 16 Days of Activism.
Ironically, during these periods the representation of women as sexual objects does not diminish, it seems to increase because there is more commercial advertising related to women.
It is also true that during this period there is more content about the status of women and issues of gender equality. While such focus is welcome, thereafter there is a sharp decline and a return to business as usual.
Between 9 August and 16 Days of Activism, beauty contests occupy the media and commercial advertising picks up as the festive spending picks up. It appears therefore that the intense periods of concentration on women’s issues are in fact a ghetto. It can be argued  that media is shedding crocodile tears while actually making money. A significant amount of the content is actually advertorials or supplements, not analytical or investigative.
It is a public secret that the Commission on Gender Equality (CGE) is unknown partly because the media does not cover it sufficiently, and partly because it seems to do nothing that raises its profile and to tackle cases of gender inequality. During the Zuma rape trial issues arose that have grave implications for gender equality, which the CGE seemed to treat with a cautiousness that borders on doing nothing. 
One would expect in August and during the 16 days of activism analytical stories on the CGE and the Office on the Status of Women, Children and the Disabled’s activities or lack thereof.
The editorial content during August tends to focus on the achievements of elite women, be formalistic about rights and eschew the everyday manifestations of gender inequalities and unequal power relations. It does nothing therefore to relate the constitutional rights to people’s everyday experiences, which could inform them of those rights so they can exercise them.
During the 16 days of Activism, the tendency is to focus on violence in a somewhat decontextualised fashion. To be sure, it is important to expose the levels and types of endemic and escalating violence that women and children face because in Southern Africa one can characterise gender based violence as a low intensity civil war.
The media’s coverage of 16 Days of Activism and gender-based violence should link violence to its underlying cause, which is gender inequalities and power relations in which women and children are victims. Media coverage should explore contradictions between increasing official discourses and institutional set ups, with failure to create conditions for equality that women across the social spectrum can use to transform their lives.
Ultimately, all social institutions, including the media, need to change to play a different and more transformative role in which issues of gender equality are mainstreamed and not ghettoised in August and November/December. 
(Tawana Kupe is Head of the School of Literature, Languages and Media Studies at the University of Witwatersrand. This article is part of a special series of articles produced by the Gender links Opinion and Commentary Service for the Sixteen Days of Activism on Gender Violence).

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