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Media critical in war on violence against women

By Margaret Mwantok
17 December 2019   |   3:10 am
Despite increased efforts at addressing Violence Against Women and Girls (VAWG), global data shows that one in three women has experienced physical and, or sexual violence at some point

Participants at the UNESCO training on gender-based violence

• Tasked on genderreporting

Despite increased efforts at addressing Violence Against Women and Girls (VAWG), global data shows that one in three women has experienced physical and, or sexual violence at some point. With just about a decade to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals 2030, the above statistics have become worrisome to many individuals, organisations, governments, and others, as the world seems far from realising goal number five, which seeks gender equality and women’s empowerment.

Last week, under the Spotlight Initiative of the European Union and United Nations, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), organised a four-day training for journalists in Lagos on Sensitive Reporting and Investigative Journalism on Gender-Based Violence (GBV). The 33 journalists were drawn across all platforms from Ebonyi, Cross River, Adamawa, Sokoto, Lagos States, and Abuja.

Coordinator, Women’s Research and Documentation Centre, Institute of African Studies, University of Ibadan, Dr. Sharon Omotoso, warned the media on the use of language but urged them to strive to use neutral terms and avoid assumptions about gender roles and stereotypes.

She said, “The use of common representations, for example, about women being the ‘carers’ of the family or about the need for them to be beautiful and sexy only serve to reinforce and legitimise such stereotypes.”

Omotoso pointed out that the media is instrumental in promoting or eradicating patriarchal, sexists and exclusionary practices in Nigeria, because of its influence, adding, “The nature of news, the choices made about what is newsworthy and the way the story is reported must change. Women need to be used more as the sources and subjects of stories. They need to be interviewed as commentators and experts.

“The media presents a world of ‘make-believe’ from adverts to news reports, and these have a lasting effect on the viewers. The content might be about other people, but the messages and the underling attitudes are not. They communicate cultural values which shape the way people think and interact with others. The media, therefore, has the opportunity to challenge the status quo and promote equal and fair portrayal of women and men in society.”

The university don stressed the need for journalists to be gender-sensitive in their reportage, noting that promiscuity and sexist agency reporting was often gender-biased.

“Gender identity is also a significant expression of sexuality with categories of gender-conforming or queer,” she stated. “There is a social connection here between media stereotypes and orientation which suggest that feminine men are gay, masculine women are lesbians.”

She also noted the laws regulating sexuality to include individual socialisation and media sensationalism, among others as factors that might influence gender sensitivity or bias of an investigative journalist.

According to Omotoso, “In reporting sex-related stories, caution must be taken to avoid intrusive journalism that enables sexualisation of women. In issues of rape and violence, flimsy methods used to protect identity must be improved, especially with the possible social stigma that might follow. The engagement of third party reports on critical issues of rape must be appropriately verified and reduced to the barest minimum.”

She further advised that journalists must apply caution when reporting women in power, so as not to reinforce stereotypes that portray them as arrogant, disrespectful or inept.

She said, “Generic terms that erase women actors must be avoided as in chairman, spokesman, delegates’ wives and so on, replacing these with the spokesperson, chairperson and delegates’ spouses.”

For Dr. Franca Attoh of Sociology Department, the University of Lagos, gender has become significant in understanding the development efforts of nations, because sustainable human development could not take place without equitable participation of men and women. Attoh said journalists must be at the forefront of ensuring the mainstreaming of agenda to catalyse national development.

According to Attoh, “The best methodology to deploy in reporting GBV is investigative journalism, and journalists must be patient and detached from emotions while digging deep for facts.”

As the common saying goes, ‘You can kill the reporter but not the story’, Attoh advised, “Keep your eyes and ears open. Look out for possible stories always. People may even give you scoops but you have to discover the stories yourself. Don’t overlook any possible clue. Get the facts and fit them together. Gather your facts accurately and piece them together. Investigative reporting is like solving a jigsaw puzzle.”

She stressed that evidence must be gathered to support the facts to protect against litigation, noting, “Confidential sources in investigating sensitive stories may pose some challenges as sources may wish to remain anonymous. Threats may be issued to discourage the investigation. Report all threats to the editor, the company lawyer, and the police. It is a layer of protection. Work within the ambit of the law. Don’t use unethical methods to source information.”

Also, consultant and specialist on gender issues, Dr. Zubairu Attah, said, “Unless women are represented in elected bodies where major spending decisions are taken, it is likely that current patterns of expenditure will continue,” pointing out that the issue of gender is not a problem of northern Nigeria versus southern Nigeria as statistics are troubling in all parts of the country.

“We all must tackle it as impact change champions,” she said, “who encourage and exhort the state and sections of society to address the inequalities and barriers that face our development. Because gender is entrenched in political philosophy, the journalist as a learned ‘product’ is the fluid upon which it swims and reinforces the ‘agenda’ made up of societal creations that can change and be changed.”

National Professional Officer (Communication and Information Sector) UNESCO Regional Office, Macaulay Olushola, told The Guardian that violence against women and girls was one of the most pervasive human rights violations in the world, saying it was a cause and consequence of gender inequality, impacting the health, safety, productivity and overall well-being of women and girls. He expressed worry over the persistence of attitudes, beliefs, practices, and behaviour in society that perpetuate negative stereotypes, discrimination, and gender inequality, as root causes of VAWG, saying that addressing the menace lies with the media.

According to him, “Media function is to shine light upon important societal issues: raising awareness about the extent, causes, and consequences of the various forms of abuses that exist. They should serve to present society in all of its diversity, rather than drawing upon narrow traditional narratives and stereotypes regarding the roles and portrayals of men and women of different backgrounds. They can provide a voice and platform to empower the voiceless and place critical issues onto the political agenda.

“At the same time, however, media can and often perpetuate violence-supportive social norms that are discriminatory along with gender and other lines, which actively undermine gender equality and women’s freedom from violence. The media content on violence against women could affect the audience in different ways. The negative content produced can have significant adverse effects, which can lead to serious consequences.”

He explained that the media are part of a broader political, social, economic and cultural environment, and operate as a reflection of the context and at the same time contribute to shaping the context, adding, “As the environment changes, new considerations arise as to how the media operate and how society interacts with media.”

Olushola noted that empowerment of women and girls (and men and boys) through media and information literacy was critical in fostering equitable access to information and knowledge and providing the skills needed to navigate and engage with the content being disseminated through various channels (print, audio, video, digital and so on).

He said, “Advocating for regulatory frameworks to increase the participation and access of women to expression and decision-making in and through media, to increase more equitable and safer access to new technologies of communication, and to promote a balanced and non-stereotyped portrayal of women throughout media.”