The 1990’s witnessed dramatic changes in the print and electronic media in Africa. These changes both contributed towards and resulted from the movements towards political pluralism experienced across the region. Accompanying trends towards economic liberalization and privatization did not leave the media untouched. Today, most African countries have several independent print outlets, including some publications in local languages. And, with the exception of only a few African nations, broadcasting is no longer the preserve of the ruling political parties.

Debates in Africa about freedom of expression and information are now less about how much exists and more about content, which has yet to fully break away from reliance on traditional sources and formats. The voices of many who live and work outside of urban areas are rarely seen and heard. International, even regional, news continues to be largely received through the filters of global news agencies. At broadcasting outlets, the spoken word to music ratio is usually grossly unbalanced. Since very few African countries have media regulations that seek to promote local content, much of the music is also externally produced.

In nearly every country, there are now women’s media associations: The Association of Media Women in Kenya, the Ethiopian Media Women’s Association, the Tanzanian Media Women’s Association, and the Uganda Media Women’s Association are a few examples. There are also a couple of regional women’s media umbrellas, such as the African Women’s Media Centre and the Federation of African Media Women.

The focus of these associations has primarily been on how to improve the representation of African women within the mainstream (public and private) media. Research papers that examine conditions in some of these countries attest to the under-representation of women at all staffing levels within the African media and increasingly so at decision-making and managerial levels. The absence of in-house policies to address gender stereotypes and the male-oriented working conditions and associated informal decision-making processes means that African women miss out on internal opportunities (if they are not willing to put up with endemic sexual harassment). Women journalists also are assigned “soft” coverage—relegated to the features and opinion sections—and this compounds their lack of exposure and access to training opportunities likely to bring professional advancement.

A secondary focus of these associations has been to improve the capacities of their members. Training sessions on a range of relevant issues have been held nationally, sub-regionally and regionally. Some sessions stress areas of technical competence, such as the use of new information and communications technologies to improve reporting and editing. Other are content-oriented, for example, focused on specialized reporting on economic or environmental issues, or on reporting about gender issues, human rights, and the legal system.

These two areas of focus need to be intertwined. Without advocating fair gender policies and establishing a conducive regulatory environment, even the most well-trained African women journalists are unable to utilize the skills they learned once they are back at work. And without the technical training, when advocacy efforts are successful African women will find themselves not ready to assume their rightful places within the media.

These efforts have had some positive results. In many African countries, advocacy work regarding laws and policies governing the media by coalitions of media stakeholders (unions, freedom of expression organizations, professional associations) has involved key demands about gender representation and content. A few media organizations have adopted new in-house gender and sexual harassment policies. And the efforts women have made within their respective media have led to interesting and useful partnerships with women’s organizations to improve coverage of gender-related issues. The annual global campaign against violence against women, for example, now has mainstream media support in several African countries. Throughout the duration of the campaign, advertising and editorial copy for the print and electronic media will dedicate time to coverage and analysis of these issues and the campaign’s events.

In some African countries, repeated coverage of the violence against women campaign during a period of two to three years has enabled women journalists to successfully lobby for more coverage of this topic apart from the campaign. Sections of newspapers where these stories are now featured are—finally and thankfully—very different in content than traditional women’s sections and shows which focused on cooking and housekeeping and child raising. These new “gender” sections and shows are dedicated to discussions of key contemporary discussions and debates, some of which focus on harmful traditional practices, on African women’s constitutional and legal demands, and on African women and their decision-making. Including African men in such sections and shows, when it is relevant professionally, clearly marks an important shift: Gender is now portrayed as being a key variable to all critical public policy debates, and this enables public support to increase for these various causes.

Outside of the mainstream (public and private) broadcast media significant changes have occurred as well, but concerns remain, including issues of access to media production. In Africa, with its disproportionately low literacy rates, most new electronic media do not extend their reach beyond capitals and large urban areas. This means that African women of lower income levels, in both urban and rural areas, suffer from lack of access to information. They also do not have the means to express their own realities, debate their interpretations of those realities, and engage in discussions about potential solutions with decision- and policymakers at the national level.

In an attempt to remedy this situation, community broadcast media have emerged. These are participatory, community-based and -managed broadcast media with a developmental agenda. Development Through Radio in Zimbabwe, for example, links a series of rural women’s listening and production groups with one another through a public broadcaster. In Mali, open media regulation has allowed for the formation of six women’s community radio stations, similarly linked to exchange programs and ideas. There are now women’s community radio stations in Malawi, Senegal and South Africa. Most of the community radio stations are not specifically managed by women, but women’s representation and gender are key components of their mandate.

To cater to the needs of African women in community radio, the Women’s International Network (WIN) of the Africa section of the World Association of Community Radio Broadcasters (AMARC) has developed a training program aimed at improving the technical and editorial capacities of women. This editorial training introduces them to gender analysis and to the tools they’ll need to link themselves with various women’s organizations. This creates a bottom-up, local-to-national flow of information and improves advocacy on gender. The training on technologies teaches them to use radio as a bridge to the Internet, again by supplying tools to feed their productions into a community radio exchange that reaches across Africa.

The potential of such a community-to-community exchange to articulate, legitimize and catalyze African women’s mobilization for change is enormous. The impact of changes and initiatives on the gender agenda is slowly but cumulatively building and being felt. When we can turn on our radio stations and hear about what rural women in the Sahel are doing about desertification and be able to immediately contrast that with the experience of similar women in the Horn—or when we can listen to the voices of women involved in conflict resolution from Sierra Leone to Rwanda to Somalia—then we’ll know we’re getting somewhere.

L. Muthoni Wanyeki is the executive director of the African Women’s Development and Communication Network (FEMNET) and president of the World Association of Community Broadcasters (AMARC Africa).

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