Why is media literacy important for women

Date: January 1, 1970
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Gender equality goes hand in hand with freedom of expression. The more women speak, the more we are on our way to gender balance and equality, not only in the media but also in society. However, media messages often convey content and images that maintain the stereotypical, patriarchal and hegemonic values about women in society.

This consequently perpetuates inequalities between men and women. However, what is part of the problem can also be part of the solution.
Media literacy – the ability to read and analyse images and implicit messages in all types of media content – can provide platforms for discussion and debate on gender and gender issues. Media literacy plays a significant role in determining whether gender issues will widely be considered important and legitimate social, political, and cultural matters of society. 
Media literacy is essentially about being an active citizen in participatory democratic societies and for young democracies in the Southern African Development Community (SADC) this role is invaluable.
‘Watching the Watchdogs: A Gender and Media Literacy Toolkit for Southern Africa’ is a training course that attempts to address imbalances in media by shifting the power from producers of media to the consumers. Conceptualised by Gender Links, a Southern African Non-governmental Organisation specialising in gender, governance and communication, and their partner organisations, the course provides participants with skills in critical inquiry and self-expression
‘Watching the watchdogs’ involves monitoring the media with quantitative analysis, such as counting the number of women sources in a story. It also uses qualitative approaches, such as analysing the themes that are apparent in a particular story.
The ten modules of the course cover such topics as increasing knowledge around the use of Information Technology for advocacy, learning how to make one’s voice heard through the media by writing opinion or commentary pieces, appreciating multiple perspectives, locating regulatory authorities to hold media accountable and using the media effectively as a powerful strategy for social change.
Media literacy is especially important for many women in the Southern African region. Women are often do not have opportunities to access information and are less likely to express themselves in media, as shown in the third Global Media Monitoring Project (GMMP) study.
The GMMP monitors the representation and portrayal of women and men in the news on one day of the year. The latest report, released in February 2006, found that that many countries in the SADC region showed improvement in their use of women’s voices in media content.
The highest percentage of women sources in stories existed in South Africa with 26% while Angola trails behind with the lowest in the region at 13%; the regional average being approximately 19% which slightly lower than the global average being 21%.
Even if there has been an increase in the use of women’s voices in media content, southern Africa still has a long road ahead. In fact, discussing media literacy without a gendered perspective misses the point.
Media literacy is not about cynically bashing the media or simply looking for political agendas and propaganda or misrepresentations and stereotypical images. As quoted in Literacy for the 21ST Century from the Center for Media Literacy, media literacy does not mean “don’t watch” but rather “watch carefully, think critically.”
Or as one of the ‘Watching the watchdogs’ participants, Telele Grace Mathinjwa put it “You just don’t read and take it as it is, you become very critical, you ask questions like why are women not being taken seriously, why are we seeing their bodies more than their intelligence…”
In a time of a global media culture when we are constantly bombarded with content and images through media at all times of the day-perhaps media literacy is more important now than ever before. As Majorie Heins and Christina Cho state in Media Literacy: An Alternative to Censorship, “with the revolutionary changes in communication that have occurred in the last half century, media literacy has become as essential a skill as the ability to read the printed word.”  
In a dichotomous time when there are more women in government and decision-making posts than ever before while there is a feminisation of HIV/AIDS and poverty and sexual violence against women and girls is under-reported, gender and media literacy has become increasingly significant to the cause for gender equality.
Media literacy plays a very important role in rethinking gender and giving voice to women in the Southern African region.
Rochelle Renere Davidson is coordinator of the Gender and Media Literacy training and researcher at Gender Links in Johannesburg, South Africa. For more information on the Gender and Media Literacy toolkit please email research@genderlinks.org.za . This article is part of a special series of the GL Opinion and Commentary Service produced ahead of the SADC Heads of State summit in Lesotho from 17-18 August by the Southern Africa Gender Protocol Alliance comprising ten NGOs that promote gender equality in the region.

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