Funke Olaode writes on her recent experience in Lusaka, Zambia where the Graca Machel Trust hosted the first Women in Media Roundtable
It is not often that African men accord women their right of place when it comes to intellectual fare. However, one of the African women who has been leading an enduring crusade to get African men to think differently is Mrs. Graca Machel, wife of former South African President, Dr. Nelson Mandela. She has developed a multi-pronged approach to this crusade. She is a founding member of the African Women’s Foresight, a platform for advocacy for African women and children. For Machel, empowerment for African women is not only a developmental issue, but an economic issue. Convinced that more can be done in this direction, she established Multiplying Faces Amplifying Voices which she said is committed to the empowerment of African women across sectors such as finance, agriculture, media and science.
The New Faces New Voices, her non for profit organisation was borne out of the acknowledgement that women do not have much presence in terms of visibility and powerful voice in the financial system in the African continent and globally.
Recently, Machel and her team of Pan African organisations, New Faces New Voices held the 3rd African Women’s Economic Summit (AWES) in Lusaka, Zambia. The three-day summit at Mulungushi International Conference Center drew delegates from across the African continent.
She explained that the summit with the theme ‘African Women: Realising Africa’s Economic Potential’ seeks to unlock the value that is inherent in the female economy in order for women to take their rightful place as equal partners in meeting the development challenges of Africa.
“We held this summit in Kenya in 2010 and took it to Nigeria in July 2012 in honour and recognition of changes which are taking place in Nigeria, a vibrant society that has role models in women in business. We want to acknowledge that there is a progress taking place and there are policies in place. These are lessons from Nigeria) that we want to expose with the summit to many other countries to learn from. Nigeria is also considered to be a country which will lead and become the best economy in the continent. It is important to learn and know the positive dynamics which are taking place in Nigeria,” she said.
According to her, a lot of things are happening globally and women are not being carried along. “The empowerment of women is not only a developmental issue; it is very much an economic issue. Those institutions that recognise the changes that are happening globally and take steps to make certain that they are participating in the next emerging market, will reap economic benefits of their investment. But it is shocking that sometimes our common future is being re-shaped and re-designed without the participation of this part of humanity.”
There was a new dimension in this year’s summit as the maiden edition of ‘Women in Media Roundtable’ discussion was introduced to the session. The session hosted by the Graca Machel Trust was to encourage a discussion on the ‘Image of Women in the Media’ – how they are portrayed and what can be done to change this narrative.
The session anchored by Iris Pilane and Head of Communications, Graca Machel Trust, Bongiwe Mlangeni was an eye opener that female journalists have an important role to play in giving their fellow women a voice.
Throwing more light on the Women in the Media discussion, Mlangeni said the Graca Machel Trust is a small organisation which started with about 12 people. The founder felt women too can become players and influential in Africa. “The purpose is really for women economic empowerment, voices connecting women across Africa and network women in agricultural sector.
She felt women in media should use their tools to celebrate women achievers, fight for children’s rights, end child marriage and to ensure that the girl-child has access to education.
“Not only that, in democracy and governance, women in leadership or those aspiring for leadership positions should know what to do, get involved in decision making and not to be just flowers around the table.”
The discussion began with repositioning the story of women in Africa. The question centred on how women in the media can become influential voices and reframe the story of women on the continent and globally. This session allowed journalists to provide practical steps that can be taken so that women can be seen beyond sex objects.
Leading the discussion was Ann Njogu, a veteran journalist and woman advocate from Nairobi, Kenya. According to Njogu apart from the fact that women lack financial capacity which often hinders them to move to greater heights, cultural and traditional norms play key roles in suppressing them. “There are societies that don’t allow women to own land. And in most cases, financial institutions demand collateral before they give out loans. There is this cliché that don’t give money to people who cannot pay. How do you break this barrier? If women don’t have financial power, we lose in the game and that is why there must be financial inclusion of women in the financial sector and decision making.”
“Most women live in rural areas engaging in agriculture and 80 per cent of their produce is used to sustain their family. For women to be fully involved we have to open windows, we need to restructure the financial institutions to respond to needs of women. They need to take her place at the centre stage where important decisions are made and not just portray themselves as flowers around the table. Women must be seen and heard in a positive manner that will bring sustainable development.”
How do you often portray women in the media? As sex objects, as agents or helpless? Pilane queried. The discussants observed that often times the media portrays women as a petty traders either at one corner selling tomatoes or carrying something on their heads. Women are often portrayed as helpless people who don’t have a voice. “To be conscious of the plight we have to shift the images by using the power of communication. How do you in your newsroom or in your creativity present women issue to the public so that generation unborn can have a different perception about women globally?
Advocacy is the answer said Eddie, another female journalist from South Africa. “Women should come together and speak with one voice. Women should think out of the box. When you are writing stories think women first and sometimes seek help from professionals and experienced hands”.
It was also observed that women are not collaborating enough. The clarion cry was that women should come together and build alliances like men in terms of sisterhood bond; women ownership of media should be encouraged, beside women telling other people’s story, they should aspire to own a media.
Another issue raised was margnalisation and often time gender barriers that serve as impediment against women. Another discussant wondered why women in powerful positions are not celebrated. Not minding their academic pedigree some people still believe that rather than intellectual capacities and abilities they get to higher positions because of one powerful personality or the other.
One of the methods agreed on by the discussants on how to end the dearth of women role models in the media was the resolve to celebrate female journalists who have made giant strides and played key roles. They should not be allowed to disappear as soon as they quit the media. Their story must be told to inspire and mentor upcoming female journalists. “In crafting a new story of women, we have stories to tell but we choose to ignore them. We can start celebrations of women by writing about pioneers in journalism within the continent. “Let’s start creating this bank of knowledge”, they noted.