A free press, crucial to any democracy, plays a significant role in shaping public attitudes. It can reinforce voter stereotypes about certain types of candidates, or it can help dispel the kinds of opinions that for many years in many places have hampered efforts by women to become full partners in the political process.
In Burkina Faso, descrimination touches many aspects of women’s lives. Inheritance rights are unequal between men and women, violence against women is pervasive and women have lower literacy rates. To jump start equal representation among elected officials, the West African country created a requirement in 2009 that 30 percent of party candidates be women, but the country has yet to fulfill the quota. The media could play an important role in helping to legitimize women as leaders in the eyes of voters and party officials.
To move that process forward, NDI joined with the Global Center for Journalism and Democracy at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas, to bring together print, radio, television and online journalists from across the country for an intensive three-day training on avoiding gender stereotypes. The program, “Ensemble Pour L’égalité!” (Together for Equality!), was led by the center’s executive director Kelli Arena, Egyptian journalist and women’s rights advocate Shahira Amin, and Slovenian gender and politics expert Sonja Lokar. It was held May 14-16 in Ouagadougou, the capital.
Lokar led the journalists through a series of exercises and examples that showed how men and women are portrayed differently in local and international media, often reinforcing rigid gender roles and stereotypes. Men are assumed to be leaders and experts while women are portrayed as powerless. “The consequences of non-equitable reporting are serious,” she said. “Women and their points of view on different issues of common interest are less present than men’s, and men and women are mostly presented in traditional roles, with women [portrayed] as objects of state care, as victims or targeted as consumers.”
Amin, sharing examples from her native Egypt, described how accurate and conscientious reporting can help democracy succeed. “Activism begins where good journalism leaves off,” she said, giving an example of how her reporting on female genital mutilation led the Egyptian parliament in 2008 to pass a law outlawing the practice.
Local experts also contributed, including Beatrice Damiba, president of Burkina Faso’s High Council of Communication; Arnaud Ouedraogo, a magistrate and expert in human rights, gender and the media; Aminata Faye Kassé, NDI resident representative; and Dany Ayida, NDI program director.
Ouedraogo described the various state obligations and legal texts related to ensuring gender equality, from the United Nation’s Beijing Declaration affirming women’s equality and empowerment to the National Media Code, which explicitly states that the media should not subordinate women or suggest that they are inferior. He underscored the need for journalists to report on the differences between what is required by law — which states that men and women are equal in all aspects fo the law — and what happens in practice, with women being descriminated against and treated unfairly. “The truth is the journalist’s cornerstone,” he said, reminding participants to eliminate stereotypes in their work. “You must portray society as you see it without distortion.”
"This training really helped me understand a good number of things about gender, especially about how we perpetuate stereotypes by using them in our papers,” said one participant. “The experience of the experts in journalism and human rights helped me see things differently."
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Published July 12, 2013