UNICEF urges women to fulfill role, The African

Date: January 1, 1970
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An official with the United Nations Children?s Fund (UNICEF) cautions that the fight for gender equality should not interfere with women?s maternal role of breastfeeding.
An official with the United Nations Children?s Fund (UNICEF) cautions that the fight for gender equality should not interfere with women?s maternal role of breastfeeding.

This article may be used to:
  •  Povide key learning points on gender stereotypes in the media.

Trainer’s notes

This story promotes the gender stereotype that caring for children is the primary responsibility of the mother. But it goes further to suggest that women’s fight for gender equality is in conflict or a deterrent to women fulfilling their ‘natural’ mothering role.

The story illustrates how presenting an issue through only one source or perspective, the media can convey gender biases, reinforce stereotypes and attack gender equality efforts within a country.

The reporter does not challenge the views presented by a UNICEF official in a paper given at a workshop, but presents them as fact. There are no interviews with women and men attending the workshop, as well as women and men in society on the views expressed.

Also it should be noted that the reader has no idea of whether the official’s paper has been reported on out of context. Often when reporting on presentations and research, journalists highlight extracts from papers which are controversial or which confirm their own biases and prejudices. For example, the official’s statement that studies conducted in Malawi, Tanzania and Zambia ‘proved that baby caring still remained a mother’s work’ is not further developed. There is no indication of when or why the studies were conducted; who was interviewed; what the studies’ objectives were; nor of how the conclusion given was reached.

Another example of why the paper may have been reported out of context is the fact that the central focus of the paper, and story, seems to be women’s right to maternity leave. By focusing on the issue of breastfeeding and women’s roles as mothers, the story fails to examine inequalities in the workplace which discriminate against women.

 The reporter also fails to explore several underlying issues, such as:

  • Single women who must work and are unable to stay home with their babies;

  • Women’s right to maternity leave – the story indicates that there are varying days of maternity leave granted to women;

  • The role of men in parenting at all stages of a child’s development.

The reporter shows little knowledge and understanding of what rights constitute women’s human rights. For example, breastfeeding is presented as a right, and not as a choice mothers have a right to make base of many factors.

This story illustrates how the media plays a pivotal role in defining specific gender standards by which women and men are measured as ‘successes’ or ‘failures’. Women who are unable to breastfeed would be viewed as ‘failures’ according to the message of this story, because they would not have ‘fulfilled their role’ as mothers. A gender norm thereby is created that a ‘good mother is equated to breastfeeding’. When women are unable to meet this norm, this leads to frustration, a sense of failure or self-hate. Men who measure women by this norm may also tend to form judgements and expectations that can lead to violence.

The headline presents the view on women’s role as if this is a formal position of UNICEF, which is misleading and incorrect. In presenting papers at workshops, officials often are not presenting the official views of their organisation’s unless otherwise stated. By pinning the view to reputable and respected international agency like UNICEF, the media seeks to ‘sanction’ its own views on women’s roles and gender equality.

Training exercise

Exercise one: Read the case study and discuss the following:

  1. Why do you think this story made news?

  2. What message is conveyed by the media?

  3. What gender stereotype is reinforced ?

  4. What gender issues underlie the story?

  5. What message is conveyed by the headline? Is this a correct reflection of the message conveyed in the article? Explain answer.

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