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Q&A: Ordinary Women Have Extraordinary Stories to Tell

Rousbeh Legatis interviews LOGA VIRAHSAWMY of Gender Links

UNITED NATIONS, Mar 1 2011 (IPS) - Ordinary women’s voices are too often ignored when it comes to solving their own problems, admonishes Loga Virahsawmy, Director of the Southern African NGO Gender Links, Mauritius and Francophone Office.

As a freelance journalist and gender activist, Virahsawmy has spent years analysing how Southern African media cover women, and recently completed a study in 15 countries that showed a discouraging lack of improvement from previous years.

On the sidelines of the 55th session of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) in New York, Virahsawmy spoke to IPS about the importance of hearing the voices of ordinary women and the shortcomings of mass media. Excerpts from the interview follow.

Q: What are some of the important things ordinary women have to tell? A: Ordinary women have lots of things to tell. Ordinary women have more things to tell than people in power, because they are experiencing the problems. Their voices must be heard. You know it is good to do scientific research, it is good for scientists to talk, but who implements? Who puts the strategies and plans in action, and who suffers? These are the grassroots women. They are very knowledgeable and maybe this knowledge has not been put on paper.

It is about time that we listen to them and take this knowledge into account. Had we listened to all these women with their ancestral knowledge maybe we would not have been in so much trouble today.

Q: Do you think the voices of ordinary women are being heard here at the CSW? A: It really depends what session you go to. I went, for example, to a conference where grassroots women exchanged their experiences when it comes to climate change. These women had to do their presentations in their own language, so they were given proper space, even to talk in their own languages. This is important, because these are grassroots women and it is crucial for people here at CSW to know what is happening in these countries.

What could be seen as problematic, however, is that there is a lack of mixture between grassroots NGOs and high-level representatives, since there are official events, debates and meetings on the one side, and NGO presentations and parallel events, often outside the U.N., on the other.

At official events I met ministers, members of parliament and other crucial decision-makers when it comes to gender policy-making. The majority of them were not attending the mentioned parallel events. Furthermore, it is true that when high-level people like that talk they do not speak the language of the people. They use more a sort of an academic language, which does not trickle down to the ordinary citizens.

Therefore, it is crucial for women organisations who are attending the CSW here in New York that they must make sure of meeting and talking with their delegations and representatives, to learn what is happening and to communicate what they are doing.

Q: Your work focuses on the link between media and gender. A: Very often we forget how important media is, because media shape opinions of people. Day in, day out when people listen to their radio, they think that is God’s voice. While listening to the radio, reading the newspaper or watching TV, they do not question the content. It is therefore important for people, both women and men, to know how to read the media.

In 2010, we conducted the Gender and Media Progress Study because we wanted to see what developments have happened in recent years. We have not made much progress, unfortunately. From 17 percent of women’s voices in the media [in 2003], we are now at 19 percent in 15 analysed Southern African countries. After five years and only two percent more, I think there is a major problem.

Q: How do you approach changing this situation? A: We do it quantitatively and qualitatively, as well. Quantitative are all the statistics about where the women’s voices are, on what they talk, how many female journalists there are, what sort of beat they get to cover in comparison with male colleagues, what kind of positions women have in senior management positions and so on.

And qualitatively, we are looking at the media coverage, how the articles, for example, could have been better, what other voices are missing. Very often you have an article with a beautiful picture of a woman and when you read it her voice is not there.

Once we come up with our findings, we do trainings in media houses and with journalists. We present them our results to show how they can change their work. We are living in a very patriarchal society and journalists have been used to go and access male voices all the time. They do not realise themselves that they are not doing it correctly, until you show them the results and train them. Then maybe we can see change happening.

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