"I doubt that I would tell my story to the media if I were a victim of gender-based violence (GBV). The media would portray me as someone who asked for the abuse rather than sympathising with me." This is what Mildred*, who lives in Mazabuka District in Zambia thinks of the media in relation to GBV.
In 2010, Gender Links monitored more than 30000 news items from television, radio and newspapers in 14 Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) countries to assess if and how the media covers gender. One of the key findings from the Gender and Media Progress Study (GMPS) is that gender based violence and stories that mentioned GBV accounted for 4% of the topics covered, despite the high levels of GBV in SADC.
The research also found that GBV is covered in insensitive ways, with screaming headlines that trivialise the experiences of women. Men constitute a higher proportion of sources than women in coverage of GBV even though women constitute 98% of those who experience GBV. Most stories arise from court reporting. Very few record the first hand accounts of women.
A major question during the 2012 Sixteen Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence campaign is whether the media is part of the problem or solution in ending GBV.
The Protocol urges that levels of GBV be halved by 2015 and this can only happen when media, governments and other stakeholders such as families work together to foster activities aimed at eliminating the scourge. This is against the backdrop of the SADC Gender Protocol call to media to desist from reinforcing gender oppression and stereotypes in its coverage of gender-based violence.
Mildred's sentiments raise critical questions about whether the media is fulfilling its role to be part of the solution in ending GBV. Part of the media's role is to set the agenda and influence public opinion on issues of public interest. Thus, the media can be agents of change by bringing societal ills such as GBV out for public debate and dialogue.
Journalists in Zambia argue that without them, authorities, lawmakers and society would not fully appreciate the depth of the GBV problem.
Fulman Mukobeko a journalist from Pan African Radio in Zambia says the media has played a big role in exposing GBV cases not reported to the police. "Once the media report a case on GBV, relevant authorities who might not have been aware of the issue follow it up and sometimes even have a culprit arrested. Some non-government organisations have even come through to help victims of GBV, all because the media has brought out the issue to the fore", Mukobeko said.
Pauline Banda, a news editor at Zambia Daily Mail applauded the positive role the media has played in the fight against GBV. Banda has been running a column on various gender issues including GBV that have triggered debates and offered solutions to those affected by the vice for many years.
However, as important as it may be to write many stories on GBV, the media should move beyond the numbers (statistics) to more analytical and critical coverage. There should be an analysis of the causes and impact of GBV and article should provide prevention mechanisms.
The way the media covers GBV contributes to the way society views the problem. In many instances, the media depicts survivors of GBV, mostly women as victims. The media accuses women for "inviting" abuse because of the way they dress, talk or expose their bodies. It is not for the media to victimise abused women. By judging victims or survivors, the media offers excuses for GBV.
The media often misses the opportunity to give GBV stories a human face by denying survivors the chance to speak about their experiences. According to the GMPS, police and experts speak in most GBV stories. Survivors of violence make up only 19% of those speaking in GBV stories in SADC. Yet, stories of speaking out can actually give abused women hope and information of where to get help.
Journalists often argue that survivors, especially women shy away from the media. However, in most instances the media sensationalises GBV stories arguably to boost newspaper sales. This creates animosity between the media and women survivors.
Mukobeko feels that "women who have been subjected to GBV sometimes disappoint the media in that after the media has helped to highlight the abuse to have the perpetrators arrested, the same women will go to the police or court and have the case withdrawn." It affects the watchdog role that the media plays in reducing incidences of GBV.
Civil society should step up efforts to empower journalists with skills to report on GBV. It is equally important that media takes GBV coverage beyond the Sixteen Days Of Activism and probably emulate the message, from 16 Days to 365 Days of Activism against GBV!
*Not her real name.
Perpetual Sichikwenkwe is a journalist at the Times of Zambia and Sikhonzile Ndlovu is the Media Programme Manager at Gender Links. This article is part of the GL Opinion and Commentary Service series for the Sixteen Days of Activism against Gender Violence.