In 2012, when four vibrant female journalists opted to contest for high ranking positions at the Sierra Leone Association of Journalist (SLAJ), they were faced with fierce intimidations and harassments from some of their male colleagues.
For the first time in the history of the association, women contested for the Presidency, Vice Presidency, Financial Secretary and Secretary General positions. This was an epoch-making election in which the ladies debated with their fellow contestants on radio and television shows. While some sections of the media saw this as a history making achievement for female journalists, others took it as a challenge against the men who had been on the spot light since SLAJ was formed.
The intimidations were so glaring that some female contestants on several occasions resigned to retract if not for the support of their female colleagues who worked tooth and nail to see them go through the electioneering process with ease.
The four female journalists faced harassments, intimidations and abuse from some male journalists and male contestants who also extended the bullying on social networks by posting insinuating comments and statements against the female contestants. This display exposed the many serious challenges women in the media spectrum are faced with on a daily basis.
Thankfully, the female caucus set up by Women in the Media Sierra Leone (WIMSAL), held several consultations in organizing and mobilizing support for the female contestants. Albeit only one of the four positions contested for was won by a female journalist, it marked a new phase in the quest for gender equality in the media.
The media is seriously challenged by a widening gender gap at the decision making platform. While the media has a greater onus of adequately showcasing women’s empowerment, exhibit their talents and competencies, It is also the responsibility of media outlets to change societal perceptions, ideas, concepts and beliefs.
The media is also tasked with ensuring that international and local instruments that are crucial to the development of the society are upheld and implemented. How can the media perform these tasks if it is infested with chauvinists and people who don’t view women as partners in development? It is impossible for the media to impact change in the wider society if change has not reached its corridors. The media is a mirror for society; what is exhibited within is reflective of the wider society.
When it comes to the issue of gender equality and gender mainstreaming, media establishment history in Sierra Leone has divulged that women have no influence in determining their representation. Media images are formed through the eyes of men who are most times the sole decision-makers in the newsroom.
Furthermore, widespread chauvinism, sexual harassments and gender discrimination are among the many hurdles women journalists face in trying to pursue high-profile stories. The dominant nature of men significantly destroys women’s ability to fully partake in the decision making process, where males pride themselves to have greater competence in leadership than their female colleagues, oblivious of the intellectual abilities and natural talents of the latter.
Female journalists in Sierra Leone do not receive equal training opportunities and career advancement in relation to their male counterparts. They are hardly ever assigned to strong leadership positions. Arguably, because of the long standing archaic belief that men should lead and in the instances women have attempted to vie for offices, they have been limited to positions as vice president, financial secretaries and other positions that men do perceive to be feminine. They are generally assigned to the “less important tasks” like gender violence, children’s issues, cookery, beauty and love affairs.
Female journalists are considered by their male counterparts as women and not colleagues. They are rarely given the opportunity to prove their competence and if by accident they come up with some excellent results they are accused of having used their “woman power” to achieve this. Attaining the goal of equal representation in decision-making will provide a balance that more accurately reflects the composition of society that is needed to strengthen democratic principles and foster developments. Equality in decision-making performs a leverage function without which it is highly unlikely that a real integration of the equality dimension in policy-making is feasible.
There is a low number of women in the decision making platforms in the media. With over 40 radio stations, 50 newspaper houses, there are less than a handful of female editors or station managers. Sierra Leone can only boast of 3 female radio station managers and no substantial newspaper or TV editors. The dominant nature of men in the profession extends right into the newsroom, where the male journalists are always praised to be tough and hard working, females are regarded as lazy and incompetent. Most editors are deluded by the myth that women are intellectually incapable.
Equality of access to and attainment of educational qualifications is necessary if more women are to become agents of change. Female journalists in Sierra Leone still lack the capacity and confidence needed to fully gain equality in the news room. Many feel they lack the necessary skills including public speaking and interviewing techniques to fully attain their goals. They also believe that their lack of education put them at a disadvantage to their male counterparts. Oftentimes, male journalists have said it is the women who are shying away from taking front seat in the newsroom. This could be explained to mean that women are worried about their lack of capacity and public humiliation because of the absent of or limited education level.
The scarcity of female in leadership positions in journalism makes it difficult for burning issues to be discussed from a female perspective. There are handfuls of female entrepreneurs and males decide which position females occupy, making it difficult for the regulation of management policies that would keep women at ease.
Additionally, young female journalists feel that they do not have a place in efforts lead by veteran female journalists. Formal mentoring services that allow for the pairing of young female journalists to their more established counterparts are vital in getting young women to become informed and ultimately seasoned journalists.
Ideally, mentoring occurs on an ongoing basis and encourages young female journalists to ask relevant questions while getting exposed to journalistic realities. Engaging the younger generation in journalism is essential in keeping important issues on course which otherwise could become extinct without such consistency.
Most female journalists lack computer knowledge. Most are struggling with the use of the keyboard and basic computer icons and programmes. ICT is the modern day reality but for female journalists, this reality is still farfetched. Most media houses have few over-used computers, a handful with internet facilities and with the intermittent power supply and the slow nature of the internet, make the whole internet use very frustrating. Some colleagues could go months without even checking their emails or even access the internet. Among the few with Facebook accounts, a handful occasionally accesses it. Most do not have a Twitter account. Only a few have whats’app installed on their mobile phones and are very irregular users. Online media is becoming the most popular, and for sharp career growth, one would have to embed technology in practice.
Sexual harassment continues to be a predominant challenge to women journalists. Women often complain about treatments they receive from both their male counterparts, families and the public. Journalism has been described as a hostile environment so far as sexual violence is concerned. Female journalists are exposed to languages and actions that embarrass them sexually as they relate to the public and even with their colleagues and bosses at work place, these come in the form of jokes about their feminine features like breasts and hips that make them uncomfortable. They are often perceived by the society as “free women” because their job necessitates that they interact with many categories of men.
The recently concluded 58th Commission on the Status of Women (CSW58) witnessed the deliberation of activists, lawmakers and the media as they discussed ways to accelerate the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). They noted the many gaps in programming and legislation around MDG work, especially in Africa where there is a marked gender gap in leadership in the media.
The only MDG directly relevant to gender has just one target to promote gender equality and empower women (eliminating gender disparity in primary and secondary education). This is very crucial considering the persistence of unequal power relation between women and men and discriminatory laws, societal norms, practices and stereotypes that women are faced with from day to day.
The Sierra Leone media lack the training to deal with sexual assaults and gender-based violence. Sometimes the media have proven to be the pioneers of sexual harassments and intimidations. The 2013 rape saga of a deputy Education Minister allegedly against a University student also exposed the lapses in the media as the privacy rights of the alleged victim was violated with publications of her picture, her name and some newspapers publishing some horrendous comments against the alleged victims. Objectivity must be a core value of the media but in the case highlighted, objectivity was completely absent. Issues like this could have been prevented if gender equality had been at the decision making platforms of the media.
Mariama Kandeh is a Freelance Journalist based in the United Kingdom. Has worked as an editor for Concord Times Newspaper in Freetown, Sierra Leone,
reported for Business in Africa Magazine in South Africa and a contributor for the Gender Link Opinion and Commentary service in South Africa. She is also a strong women’s rights activist.