Gender and media activists are gathereing in Johannesburg for the annual Gender and Media Awards and Summit, where they will discuss progress in fighting gender stereotyping in the media, writes the executive director of Gender Links, Colleen Lowe Morna, in the Sunday Independent.  In a nutshell: some progress, but not enough. 

Colleen Lowe Morna writes in the Sunday Independent:

Among the many Women's Day celebrations this weekend, the South African Gender and Media (Sagem) Network will be toasting its victory in getting a Steers advertisement pulled off the air by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA).

The advert had a half-naked woman with dots on her body juxtaposed with a hamburger. A green cursor moving from one body part to the next pinpointed which "piece" would be preferred on the woman's body.

Members of Sagem, who had been part of a media literacy course at Gender Links, argued that they did not "see how selling burgers and ribs has anything to do with a woman portrayed in such a manner. This depicts the woman as a sex symbol that is as good as a piece of meat that is juicy and affordable."

In a lengthy judgment, the ASA agreed that the advert breaches a clause in its code which states that "gender stereotyping or negative gender portrayal shall not be permitted in advertising, unless in the opinion of the ASA such stereotyping or portrayal is reasonable and justifiable in an open and a democratic society based on human dignity, equality and freedom".

Sagem will be joined today by about 200 gender and media activists from around the region for the third Gender and Media Awards and Summit convened by Gender Links, the Media Institute of Southern Africa (Misa) and the Gender and Media Network (Gemsa) under the banner "critical citizens, responsive media".

Many have similar stories to share. In Mauritius, the Media Watch Organisation (MWO) has registered a slew of successes with getting advertisements pulled off screens and bill boards. A month ago, the MWO challenged an advert titled the "naked truth", which depicted a woman with money scattered across her body to advertise a money changing business.

When the Botswana Media Women's Association, another Gemsa affiliate, saw Kathleen Letshabo, the Botswana National Front aspirant candidate for party president, caricatured as a castrated bull in a local newspaper after she lost her leadership bid, the group protested that it found the cartoon "in poor taste" and unlikely to have been applied to a male politician who suffered a similar fate.

The letter sparked a heated but healthy debate in the Botswana media about the often thin line between press freedom and ethical standards.

Four years since the first gender and media summit, research shows that although there has been some improvement in gender balance and sensitivity in the media, major challenges abound.

The summit takes place days before the annual summit of Southern African Development Community heads of state that is expected to adopt the long awaited protocol on gender and development. Among the targets set in this instrument are: to ensure women's equal participation in all areas of media decision-making by 2015 and to ensure that the views and voices of women and men are equally heard in media content.

The Gender and Media Baseline Study conducted by Gender Links and Misa in 2003 showed that women constituted 17 percent of news sources in Southern Africa (19 percent in South Africa).

A global study two years later put this figure at 19 percent for the region and 26 percent for South Africa: a significant improvement, but still far short of any equity targets.

Gender Links's periodic Mirror on the Media series reflects similar gender disparities in a wide range of media types. For example, a study on radio talk shows in 2004 showed that in South Africa women constitute less than a third of guests and callers on radio talk shows.

With women constituting over half of all still images but less than a fifth of the voices in advertising, a sequel study on gender and advertising concluded that in this genre "women are more likely to be seen than heard".

The study cites numerous examples of blatant stereotypes, including the women's underwear series that adorned the thoroughfares of Sandton with messages such as: "ready to bare", "undress for success" and "manage your assets".

Interestingly, the gender and tabloids study in 2007 showed that this flourishing medium has a higher proportion of women's sources (35 percent in South Africa) than in the mainstream media. But tabloids abound with stereotypes of evil or ornate women and macho men – such as the alleged rapist whose penis was described in the Daily Sun as the "spear of the nation".

Gender and media activists argue that what they are advocating is in line with the principles of good journalism, including balance, fairness and sensitivity, prompting topical debates on what is new and different.

Entries to the Gender and Media Awards range from the story of a policeman's wife fighting a case of domestic abuse to Maasai men who make money using their traditional hair-braiding skills in a woman's hair salon in Tanzania.

On show at the two-day summit in Benoni, which includes international experts from Sweden and the United Kingdom, will be more than 40 examples of gender and media research, policy and training initiatives. A powerful new addition is ordinary citizens making their voices heard through media literacy, complaints and alerts.

Do critical citizens find a responsive media? The answer to that question is not only key to the quest for gender balance and sensitivity in our region, but also to the future of our fragile democracies.

* Colleen Lowe Morna is the executive director of Gender Links and the outgoing chairwoman of the Gender and Media Southern Africa Network. For more information go to This article was first published in the Sunday Independent on 10 August 2008.