Women’s lives to tell, not to exploit

Date: October 19, 2010
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If anybody has ever wondered why Gender Links and like-minded organisations place a watchful eye on the media, the answer was made clear last week. While more than one hundred advocates of gender equality took stock of the media at the fourth Gender and Media Summit in Johannesburg, a Mozambican newspaper demonstrated why this gathering was necessary.

Noticias, a government daily with the widest national distribution in Mozambique, published the heart-rending experience of a teen girl.

On Monday, 11 October a pregnant 16-year-old attempted to abort by ingesting pills. She started to bleed at school and sought refuge in a friend’s home. The law on abortion in Mozambique, which dates from the 1860s, declares abortion a crime. The girl was duly arrested and taken into custody by the police.

The intimate details of this young girl’s life were exposed in the most gender-insensitive and ethically unsound way. In the coverage of this incident, Noticias chose to print her name, her address, the school she attends, her year of study, family details and name of her boyfriend.

The story was written with no compassion and the dimension of the human tragedy that lies behind the incident was ignored. This highlights the importance of having “gender glasses”, both in journalistic reporting and in the formulation of socially responsive laws.

Once alerted about the article, women’s NGOs and activists in Mozambique took action. Mozambique is a signatory to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which declares all people under the age of 18 as minors. Noticias directly infringed on this aspect of the Convention. It is clear that guidelines on ethical reporting need to be applied in the newsroom.

In the few days, this issue has been actively discussed in the Mozambican blogosphere (see here). Gilberto Macuacua, a Mozambican male feminist and activist, wrote in his blog that he is deeply shocked by this case. One of the unspoken gender issues he raises is that “the young girl is arrested, she is suffering twice or perhaps four times more, while the young man is out with impunity, having a good time”. He laments that this is part of a system that “penalises women in issues where a man is the cause or the accomplice”.

This is happening at a time that a new law on the de-criminalisation of abortion has been drafted and is being discussed at the level of Council of Ministers before being sent for approval to the National Assembly.

In an open letter, Eduardo Namburete, a lecturer at Eduardo Mondlane University and board member of Gender Links wrote, “In this country, the rich can have an abortion whenever they want to. It is poor women who must go through unsafe abortions and on top of that, they suffer being penalised by the police because of an old law that even the Portuguese from whom we inherited the law do not use.” Namburete adds, “Noticias missed an opportunity to challenge the authorities on the reasons for not changing the penal code that forbids abortion.”

It is a tragedy that the young girl ended up at the police station rather than the hospital. Namburete believes that “if abortion was not illegal and if it wasn’t so expensive that girl would have gone to the hospital to ask the doctors to perform the abortion. For me, that girl is not a criminal.” I would rather say that she is a survivor of an inequitable social and judicial system.

She is also the victim of a careless media, which has become more interested in exploiting than reporting. The Gender and Media Progress Study (GMPS), which was launched last week at GEM Summit, found that 67% of news stories in Southern Africa are based on single sources and women are accessed as sources in only 19% of stories.

For Mercedes Sayagues, a Knight Health Journalism Fellow and the presiding judge for the Gender and Media Awards, the article struck a particular chord because her brief is to improve health reporting in Mozambique and because she is the mother of a teenage girl.

Sayagues stated in no uncertain terms that “this article is social death for the girl”. One must talk about the impact of clandestine abortion but one must always protect the identity of minors. It is also good practice to write about people’s lives with compassion and respect.

An example of good practice in reporting sensitive issues in the media was discussed at the GEM Summit last week. Deborah Walter of Community Media for Development did a presentation on ‘”I” Stories, the power of the personal’. An initiative of Gender Links, “I” Stories bring together women who have had first-hand experiences of critical issues that are usually only represented in the form of nameless, faceless statistics. “I” Stories have been published on issues of gender-based violence, polygamy and most recently, on the hidden matter of landmines.

Walter said that the writing workshops that create the “I” Stories provide a safe space for women to share their experiences. The content of these stories fill gaps in existing media coverage and create a powerful body of knowledge. These stories have been publicised in books and also in audio format. The audio clippings have been utilised in social media such as Mail and Guardian Online and CDs of these stories were also distributed to taxi drivers to play on their routes.

This contrasts strongly with Noticias’ approach. In the case of the young Mozambican girl, a journalist put words to her situation in a way that exploited and made worse a personal tragedy. All newsrooms and journalists can learn from the “I” Stories approach, which ensures that women tell their own stories in a way that heals and empowers.

Mona Hakimi is the Communications Programme Assistant at Gender Links. This article is part of the GL Opinion and Commentary Service.


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