The recent signing of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) Protocol on Gender and Development could mean that the stories and images in the region’s media may soon have a more balanced perspective, writes Gloria Ganyani of the Gender Links Opinion and Commentary Service.  The Protocol includes a groundbreaking section that, if ratified and implemented, will advance and give extra momentum to the already animated regional activism promoting gender equality in and through the media. 

 

The Protocol expands and elevates the 1997 SADC Declaration on Gender and Development to a more binding instrument. “A declaration is a statement of intention and commitment which has more of a moral effect, while a Protocol is binding and is a move towards implementation,” said the Executive Director of Gender Links, Colleen Lowe Morna in a presentation during the Gender and Media Summit held 11-12 August in Johannesburg. 
 
Among many other provisions, the draft Protocol proposes measures to promote the equal representation of women in the ownership of media, and in the media’s decision- making structures. It also calls for measures that will discourage the media from promoting pornography and violence against all persons, especially women and children; the depiction of women as helpless victims of violence and abuse; and for measures to stop the exploitation of women, especially in the areas of entertainment and advertising.
 
The Protocol campaign started in 2005 after an audit on Gender and Development showed that while there was considerable progress since the signing of the 1997 Declaration, there were still gaps in the areas of constitutional and legal rights, governance, education, gender based violence, HIV and AIDS, peace building and conflict resolution, media, information and communications.
 
“There has been an outcry for a long time that women are exploited through the media,” says Daniel Manyowa, a freelance journalist from Malawi. “In Malawi, there was an outcry when an advertisement on condoms had a picture of a woman who was semi-naked and had her thighs exposed. People complained that such images portrayed women as sex objects. The Protocol could be a positive move towards stopping the media from degrading and exploiting women,” adds Manyowa.
 
The media and visual images play a key role in perpetuating gender stereotypes. They can also influence the construction of new perceptions and realities around the roles of men and women in society. Despite growing pressure from media activists, many media continue to stereotype women, often disregarding their capabilities. Commercial advertisements use women’s bodies provocatively, and hard news misses opportunities to portray women’s diverse capabilities.
 
“Even on issues that affect women directly, you hear men’s voices and one wonders why women’s voices are absent, even on matters that are pertinent to them,” says Loga Virahsawmy, the newly appointed chairperson of the Gender and Media Southern Africa Network.
 
“The public should therefore be trained to be media literate so that they can critique the media, give their opinion pieces, or even send media alerts so that the media become cautious that they are being watched and become more responsive,” she added.
 
For Malawi journalist, Vincent Phiri, it is very crucial for the media to be monitored because it makes them vibrant and responsive. However, he notes that it is not necessarily the role of the public to monitor the media but that there is a need for codes of conduct.
 
The Protocol also supports giving an equal voice to both women and men in all areas of coverage in the media. For Koliwe Nyoni, Gender Officer for the Media Institute of Southern Africa, (MISA) Zimbabwe Chapter, media should take into account the opinions and reflections of both men and women. “Everybody should be represented but that is not happening now.”
 
It also encourages the media to play a constructive role in the eradication of gender-based violence by adopting guidelines that ensure gender-sensitive reporting on this issue.
 
“By highlighting and exposing cases of gender violence, providing information where people can seek help, and setting an agenda for debate, the media can contribute meaningfully to ending violence. If implemented, the Protocol will influence media houses to provide space for the coverage of such issues,” says Perpetual Sichekwenkwe, a member of the Gender and Media Southern Africa (GEMSA), Zambia Chapter.
 
According to Dominica Mudota, Programme Officer, Policy, Gender and Human Rights at the Southern Africa HIV and AIDS Information Dissemination Service, the Gender Protocol could be a bold step by the SADC leadership in demonstrating commitment towards addressing gender inequalities.
 
Journalistic ethics calls for journalists to be fair and balanced in their reportage. Balance implies presenting all sides of a story, being gender sensitive and bringing out views of both men and women.
 
While the media have enjoyed watching other sectors of the society and exposing their excesses, media consumers have not been actively involved in challenging media, especially in cases where media publishes insensitive and blatantly discriminatory material such as advertisements, cartoons and stories.
 
The media need reminding that they represent everyone including people at grassroots level. The challenge however is to empower women to be knowledgeable about current affairs so that they are in a position to comment about socio-economic and political matters that affect their lives. This includes engaging with media, so that this important avenue for shaping opinion and perceptions, can play its role in promoting gender equality, and with it, democracy.
 
* Gloria Ganyani works with Southern Africa HIV and AIDS Information Dissemination Service (SAfAIDS) Media Unit in Zimbabwe. This article is part of the Gender Links Opinion and Commentary Service that provides fresh views on everyday news.