By Joseph Kayira
A social commentator says the media can foster a change in opinion and behaviour – driving major legislative and social change – when it comes to partnering with other players in the fight against Gender Based Violence (GBV). Often called the fourth estate, the media is also critical in covering Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights (SRHR) issues, says Eddy Kalonga, a social commentator and lecturer at Malawi Institute of Management and Unicaf University in Lilongwe.
Kalonga says with adequate financial resources the media can partner local traditional leaders, religious leaders, legislators and other key decision makers to start a serious conversation on SRHR, a development that would see a drop in instances of GBV and “urge people to talk about these issues on a regular basis in the media.”
“Though the media is doing an excellent work, there is need to create more space to expose GBV through different media and communication channels. For instance, with the advent of social media, we all can expose and challenge all forms of violence. Both online and offline, the media can help end violence against women and girls,” he says.
He says the media should not work in isolation when it comes to covering SRHR issues which are in line with internationally agreed Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to be achieved by the target date of 2030.
According to Kalonga SDG No 5 [Gender Equality] “call on all countries to make gender equality the foundation of peace” and that society including the media should not look at violence as a minor issue when making editorial decisions on what constitutes news.
“Violence, in whatever form, is not a minor issue. It should not be treated in the media as a short news item or other news. These are not isolated incidents but rather very serious societal problems,” he says who adds that partnerships with financial institutions and development partners providing financial backing would help the media to extensively report on GBV and SRHR issues.
Largely, Goal No 5 says “ending all discrimination against women and girls is not only a basic human right, it’s crucial for sustainable future; its proven that empowering women and girls helps economic growth and development.”
The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA says “good sexual and reproductive health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being in all matters relating to the reproductive system. It implies that people are able to have a satisfying and safe sex life, the capability to reproduce, and the freedom to decide if, when, and how often to do so.”
“To maintain one’s sexual and reproductive health, people need access to accurate information and the safe, effective, affordable and acceptable contraception method of their choice. They must be informed and empowered to protect themselves from sexually transmitted infections. And when they decide to have children, women must have access to services that can help them have a fit pregnancy, safe delivery and healthy baby. Every individual has the right to make their own choices about their sexual and reproductive health,” UNFPA says adding that together with a wide range of partners, it is working toward the goal of universal access to sexual and reproductive health and rights, including family planning.
Watchdogs, partnerships and activism too
Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA) Malawi chapter chairperson Teresa Ndanga says the media has over the years opened up and provided a platform through which these topics are being discussed even though they have for a long time been considered taboo in Malawi.
“There are however certain topics that still seem a bit sensitive to discuss such as on menstrual health. This is as such mainly because sources are not forthcoming to seize the opportunity for publicity and highlight the problems around such issues. This is partly because the problem mostly affects girls in school and at that age, many are not free to open up,” Ndanga says.
On whether or not the media is providing space for women and girls to speak out on SRHR, Ndanga says, “The space and time is available, but what I find to be a problem is that female sources are rarely readily available to comment on such issues. There are a few who speak out on these issues but as you are aware, the problem affects a lot of women and yet they are rarely ready to open up. Many of the sources aren’t ready to speak because they fear being discriminated against or if the perpetrator is someone close to them, fear of losing him – especially where he is the breadwinner.”
Ndanga adds that she space that is provided for SRHR in the newspapers is often not the prominent front-page space. She explains that while it is understandable that politics sells better than GBV would, there should be period targeting. For example, she says, during a period such as the 16 days of activism, partners working in the Gender sector should work closely with the media to deliberately provide selling angles on GBV for those stories to make the front pages.
“The media should also be encouraged to take a leading role in carrying out more awareness through their various media houses as a contribution towards efforts to end GBV in Malawi. As stated above, we could do better. The media should play its part in ending GBV considering the critical role that the media plays in informing and educating societies. There should be a deliberate agenda to help curb GBV,” Ndanga says.
Ndanga suggests that media should lead the discussion to critically analyze whether physical assault is the only rampant form of GBV. There seems to be some silent suffering from women who are going through emotional abuse or deprivation of their various rights such as economic ones, she adds.
“The voices of women suffering from such forms of GBV should also be heard and efforts be taken to end these forms of abuse as well,” Ndanga says.
Wezzie Nyirongo, editor at Capital Radio in the commercial city of Blantyre says the media in Malawi has done tremendous work in disseminating crucial information on health-related issues and exposing gender-based violence. But largely coverage of such topics are dominated by female journalists, as these are deemed women issues.
“Massive awareness by the media and gender activists has led to an overwhelming response from the society, with women and girls now coming out freely to explain their ordeals for redress. Others go a mile further to tip the media of any abuses in homes, workplaces and even education institutions,” Nyirongo says.
Newspapers, radios and television have created a favorable platform to give a voice to the voiceless through introduction of special programmes and interactive spaces.
“But the major setback is a lack of financial resources to sustain such programmes and spaces in print media as most media houses are run as commercial entities. It is difficult to continue providing such spaces free of charge including meeting travel costs to gather materials for programmes and features,” Nyirongo says.
She says partners are crucial to sustain the momentum, by providing logistical and production support to ensure that even the rural masses are not deprived of information and spaces to speak out against abuses.
Billy Mayaya, an activist and prominent member of the Human Rights Defenders Coalition (HRDC), an umbrella body of rights organisations in Malawi says time has come for the media to prioritise SRHR and GBV issues and go beyond 16 days of activism.
“For instance, gender-based violence is a serious issue and should be a priority throughout the year. The media should partner different organisations working in this area to extensively report on SRHR and GBV. We know that women are and girls are going through hell and some are losing lives because of different forms of violence they go through. The media should investigate these issues and give them prominence in their coverage of news,” he says.
He explains that there are serious instances of gender-based violence in workplaces and drinking joints but such incidents are underreported or do not make it to newspapers, radio stations, television or online media.
“The media must partner civil society and communities to help break a culture of silence that is so entrenched in many societies. Let us give women and girls the voice in the media to help end GBV. At the same time a call should be sent to development partners to finance media programmes on GBV and SRHR issues. It is one of the ways we can help save vulnerable women and girls who suffer in silence,” Mayaya says.
He suggest that the media and partners should take the campaign against GBV and issues bordering on sexual and reproductive health and rights to schools to orient young men and women on the vice and “help them to be respectful to women and girls and grow into responsible citizens.”
“We hear of young men attacking a girl because she said no to their sexual advances. I believe that once these young men are oriented in school on the rights of women and girls, they would change and live to be responsible people in future. The same applies to bosses in workplaces who make advances on their female workers. We are saying this is wrong and must stop,” Mayaya says.
The United Nations estimates that 1 in 3 women have experienced physical or sexual violence in their lifetime, which may not even include emotional, financial and verbal abuse.
Maria Jose Torres Macho, United Nations Resident Coordinator for Malawi says eliminating violence is not just an issue of rights and access to justice; but also, an accelerator of the development agenda for Malawi.
“Denying the rights of women and girls, is not only wrong in itself; it has a serious social and economic impact that holds us all back. There is increasing recognition that violence against women is a major barrier to the fulfillment of human rights and a direct challenge to women’s inclusion and participation in sustainable development and sustaining peace,” Macho says.
She says despite advances in gender equality over the last decade, Malawi ranks 145/188 on the Gender Inequality Index (GII), reflecting high levels of inequality in reproductive health, women’s empowerment, and economic activity.
Malawi is party to the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). Malawi’s Constitution also prohibits discrimination of persons in any form and obliges the State to promote gender equality. Government has also adopted several policies and legal frameworks to address GBV issues, including the National Gender Policy and National Action Plan to Combat Gender Based Violence in Malawi (2014-2020); Gender Equality Act, Domestic Violence Act, Deceased Estate: Wills and Inheritance Act among others. Although, this is the case, Sexual and Gender Based Violence remains a serious problem in Malawi.
*Joseph Kayira is a Malawian journalist working at The Lamp magazine. This story is part of the GL 16 Days SRHR News Service.