Nairobi — Several months ago I wrote a piece on marital rape in Kenya. Two editors working with a respected Kenyan newspaper refused to publish it.
"There is nothing like marital rape, what are you trying to tell people," one editor told me. His reaction surprised me because my story was not based on hearsay or uncorroborated assertions, but rather on the findings of the respected 2008-2009 Kenya Demographic and Health Survey.
The study had revealed disturbing figures showing that at least 14% of married women said their current husband or partner had forced them to have sex in the past year, while another 37% had been subjected to sexual violence at some point in their relationship.
A recent Gender-Based Violence Indicators study conducted by Gender Links and the Medical Research Council found that 7.8% of South African women had experienced intimate partner sexual violence in the past year, while 19% of women had experienced such violence in their lifetime.
My piece was about a group of human rights organisations were lobbying parliament to make it a criminal act. Yet the editor I spoke with insisted there is no such thing as marital rape.
Synovate research conducted during the 2010 Tanzanian elections found that media there gave minimal coverage to rural women who were complaining of being coerced by their husbands, sometimes under threat and violence, to vote for particular parties or candidates. The media did not see this as a serious issue. Women's voices were not sought on this or other election issues.
Consumers of media should be wondering why editors and journalists are not interested in these stories of gender-based violence.
Media is normally quite good at putting a spotlight on wrongdoers and shaming perpetrators, be they politicians, criminals or celebrities. Why the silence when it comes to violence against women?
It seems that editors are breaking one of the cardinal rules of journalism and allowing personal feelings and behaviour to impact their reporting.
Objectivity, significance and impact are no longer values guiding decisions on what to publish. This is why many gender-based violence stories fail to see the light of the day.
When male reporters and editors feel GBV stories touch on, or call into question, their personal behaviours and opinions, they become hostile to these stories.
This may be one of the reasons why the 2010 Gender and Media Progress Study found that stories about gender-based violence are rarely covered by media, accounting for just 4% of all stories in Southern Africa, despite countless other studies which note it is a widespread problem.
When articles about domestic violence and rape do appear in the news, they are more often about the rape or abuse of elderly women and children.
When rare stories are produced about young or middle-aged women being raped, journalists usually shift their reporting, suggesting that somehow the women "asked for it". Questions arise. What was she wearing? Was she drunk? Where did it happen? Should she have been there? What time of night was it?
Similarly, when a woman is killed or battered by her husband, the story is framed as a love triangle gone wrong. Rarely do reporters dig deeper to investigate causes or patterns of violence, linking them to poverty levels, lack of human rights protections (or knowledge of them), or legal systems that take forever to hear and pass verdict on cases of gender-based violence.
Rarely do media report on the massive cost of gender-based violence in terms of treatment of injuries and sexually-transmitted disease, not to mention missed work hours. What about the invisible but extensive cost to our society when this cycle of violence is passed down from absent abusive fathers to their children. Why don't journalists write about this?
In the mindset of many in the media, gender-based violence is not an issue worthy of paper and ink.
Journalists offer various lame reasons: gender-based violence stories don't sell papers the same way political stories do, survivors are not willing to speak to media, and journalists lack the skills to cover sensitive topics.
All talk, all excuses.
These issues are not the problem; it is the journalists and editors who harbour negative attitudes towards these stories. And by not reporting on these stories, the media becomes part of the problem, almost as culpable as the perpetrators of violence.
We need to demand action from our media. Action that will transform our newsrooms and ensure gender-based violence is treated as the serious human rights abuse it is. Journalists and editors need to take their personal feelings out of the equation and open their eyes to the truth, finally seeing this issue as an epidemic that will not go away until the media is responsible enough to report on it.
Arthur Okwemba is a journalist with the African Women and Child Feature Service in Kenya. This article is part of the Gender Links Opinion and Commentary Service. For the research quoted in this article go to www.genderlinks.org.za