Africa, Development & Aid, Gender, Headlines, Human Rights, Poverty & SDGs

AFRICA: Raising the Profile of Gender-Based Violence

George Mwita

NAIROBI, Aug 8 2009 (IPS) - Imagine you are a journalist; you get a tip for a story about a sexual assault on a ten-year-old girl, and pitch it to your editor.

Zipporah Musau (centre)makes a point at the workshop on covering gender-based violence. Credit:  Abdullah Vawda/IPS

Zipporah Musau (centre)makes a point at the workshop on covering gender-based violence. Credit: Abdullah Vawda/IPS

You think it's a strong story idea – fresh news of a violent crime illustrating a widespread social problem; aching human interest angle and solid sources. But he – and chances are high that your editor is male – is not interested.

Susan Wabala, from Peace Pen Communications, a Kenyan media organisation focused on social change, peace-building and conflict resolution, says just such a story about the rape of a minor in the girl's family home was turned down by editors.

"We gave the editors that story but they never wanted to run it, simply because it was one of those stories that don’t sell," she says.

Wabala's experience was a common one for East African journalists attending a workshop on reporting gender-based violence organised by Inter Press Service in Nairobi from Aug. 3-7.

The workshop, part of a project on gender equality and women's empowerment supported by the Dutch government's MDG3 fund, was also the occasion for the launch of a handbook for journalists on GBV.

Stories about GBV have received increased attention in the East Africa region's media in recent years, but they are rarely granted pride of place on the front pages of newspapers or made the lead story in broadcasts.

Reporters and analysts at the workshop agreed that despite the extent and impact of acts of GBV (physical, psychological, and economic violence directed against a person because of their gender), the issue struggles for attention from editors.

Zipporah Musau, managing editor, magazines at the influential Standard newspaper group, said journalists must face the reality of the news business. Journalists should take care to pitch stories to the right section of a paper.

News sells newspapers; GBV stories that present themselves as human interest will not displace the hard news headlines that keep a title afloat.

The story that Wabala referred to eventually did make the papers: but only after human rights activist Njoki Ndung'u, at the time a member of parliament skilfully steering Kenya's Sexual Offences Act through the legislature, took it up. Her action spurred reluctant police into action and the rapist was subsequently convicted and sentenced to a 20-year jail term.

Omer Redi Ahmed, a former editor of the Ethiopian English-language weekly Fortune, said editors in Ethiopia also routinely ignore gender-based violence stories. "In my country, most issues related to GBV are raised by activists and the government. They are rarely the work of journalists."

Ahmed, now a freelancer who contributes to IPS, said that like their Kenyan counterparts, Ethiopian editors don't feel GBV stories will sell newspapers, with a few notable – sensationalised – exceptions.

He cited the recent example of a beautiful woman whose jilted boyfriend allegedly arranged an attack on her; photos of her badly disfigured face appeared prominently on the front pages of many newspapers. The papers sold – even photocopies of the papers sold.

But if front-page coverage of GBV is limited to the violently sensational, or must wait for a notable politician to speak out, it means the daily brutality taking place in communities across the continent remains largely invisible.

It means a 19th century law allowing women to be stripped of their property upon the deaths of their husbands can survive into the 21st century. It means budgets and trade agreements can disadvantage women without scrutiny.

It means women's voices can be ignored when drafting new constitutions or mediating political settlements; that issues of justice, support and compensation for survivors of terrible violence can be deferred to another day.

Without prominent, sustained coverage of gender-based violence, police can quietly abandon domestic violence and rape cases; judges can routinely hand out light sentences to the fraction of offenders who are actually convicted. Families may settle cases out of court, as poverty puts pressure on parents to trade the trauma faced by their children for a meagre cash settlement.

Sylvia Mwichuli, of the U.N. Millennium Campaign, told the workshop that there is growing knowledge and understanding of what gender-based violence is about.

"But for most of Africa this is an issue that people don't even talk about," she said.

"You must pay more attention to this issue. You must realise that millions of women and children – and sometimes men, increasingly men – are going through a life of serious indignity. Totally unable to stand up for themselves. We must support the movement against gender-based violence."

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