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SOUTH SUDAN: Media Give Us a Fair Deal – Women

Miriam Gathigah

JUBA, South Sudan, Nov 19 2009 (IPS) - The guns have gone silent – except for sporadic conflict in parts of the vast South Sudan region, such as the Eastern Equatoria State. It may not be the absolute end of the conflict in the region, but it is a reason for renewed hope.

It has been two decades of bitter civil war in Sudan, the southerners bearing the burden of massive destruction which has left an estimated 1.9 million people dead and four million displaced, according to United Nations agencies.

Although many of the estimated six million living in South Sudan are daring to expect a new dawn, the effect these expected changes will have, particularly on women, remains to be seen.

In many African countries women are in the majority, and South Sudan is no exception, with the national report on Millennium Development Goals revealing that women make up 60 percent of the population.

“Despite democracy being understood to be a government of the people and by the people, the role that women can play in both the democratisation process of South Sudan, and the sustenance of this democracy, is still not clear,” says Alice Michael, executive director, Voice for Change, and a member of the Women Union, a movement which began in the 70s and commands a massive following.

“Media coverage of the coming elections (scheduled for April 2010), for instance, is usually supported by pictures of men seemingly caucusing, perhaps to create the impression that they are deep in serious political discussions.”

This, says Michael, makes politics appear very masculine – and when it becomes a general public perception males find it difficult to view women as equal counterparts.

Her remarks are echoed by Mary Sadia, another member of the union. “The manner in which the media represent us (women) is key in deconstructing the perception that our roles are in our homes, to bear and rear children.

“A few months ago a woman leader worked so hard to put together a public forum, but when we watched its news coverage that evening, male politicians had been accorded centre-stage at her function, and she was reported only to have been there.”

She said the power of the media to perpetuate and solidify gender stereotypes could not be over-emphasised. “It is even more critical to bear in mind that the most powerful and memorable social changes are instigated by the media, usually in subtle ways. Ways that nonetheless paint very powerful pictures in people’s minds,” said Sadia.

But the director-general in the ministry of information and communication in Eastern Equatorial State, Hon Alex Locor, counters these claims “There have been deliberate efforts to accord women as much media space as men, particularly in this highly charged political atmosphere.

“There are few media outlets. In Eastern Equatoria State we have only 97.5 FM, which means the media are still acclimatising themselves, and may not meet all expectations, but there are clear efforts towards equitable gender representation.”

Lucy Lokololong, a businesswoman in Juba, in explaining the relationship between women and the media, says the injustice towards women happens at two levels.

“The manner in which women are portrayed, say in a photograph. Are they feeding their children and doing chores considered feminine? Then their reported opinions – are they often quoted as making remarks perpetuating gender inequality?

“In essence we are talking about gender as constructed by culture, but perpetuated by the media. All this can be in blatant or subtle stereotyping,” says Lokololong.

“A photograph, for instance, is a powerful tool for subtle stereotyping. A news item that covers an entire political rally and gives not a single woman’s voice making a contribution speaks volumes.”

Lokololong also referred to 97.5 FM, as an example of a media outlet that has caused discontent, particularly with women. “The only programme for women, dubbed ‘The Women’s Programme’, airs at 3 pm. how many women are in the house to listen at that hour?

“That too is a way of trivialising women’s issues. Other programmes that seem to target men, say on the economy and politics, air at prime time while people are home unwinding.”

Pauline Luguma, a journalist, adds that women are under-represented in media institutions as practitioners. “This has also compromised the manner in which women are portrayed in the media.”

She said that out of the 11 journalists in Eastern Equatoria State, only two are women. “Women therefore are assigned ‘soft news’, on subjects such as lifestyle, while men cover ‘hard news’, such as the economy and politics.”

The outcome, she says, is a very visible and imbalanced gender disparity, with men appearing as sources and key newsmakers while women are depicted as objects.

“This therefore sabotages any chances of women being taken seriously as leaders and potential movers of any political process.”

John Kennedy Okema, editor-in-chief of 97.5 FM, said although there were challenges in changing from patriarchal news-making angles to more gender-representative ones, “there have been initiatives to drive this much-needed paradigm shift, such as deliberately incorporating women’s voices in key headline news. But it is not a change that can happen overnight.”

The editor’s remarks are echoed by the minister for Information and Communication for Eastern Equatoria State, Bernard Loki. “It is indeed a process that takes a bit of time. In my ministry, for instance, there is a lot of discontent on gender representation because of male dominance.

“The South Sudan story is more complex than this. We are talking about media that only just recently rose from the ashes of war. With time women will take much more media space than they do now.”

As women continue to stand at the periphery of newsworthiness, the wheels of change are grinding and democratisation beckons with the coming general elections, as well as the referendum.

This therefore calls for a clear media transformation that accommodates more women, and the opinions they hold as inarguably equal stakeholders in society.

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