Empowering women and girls: what’s radio got to do with it?

This is an excerpt from remarks by Hirondelle USA Executive Director Anne Bennett at a side event of the 58th Session of the Commission on the Status of Women: “Access to Information and Communications Technologies and a free and independent media: effective means to contribute to gender equality and the empowerment of women”. A video of the event can be seen on United Nations Web TV.

As a media professional working in post conflict countries to provide locally reported professional news and information I’d like to share some thoughts on how Information and Communications Technologies (ICTs) – and broadcast media in particular- are empowering women and girls, and facilitating their participation in building peace in the aftermath of conflict.

Several weeks ago I was in Masantigie, a town in western Sierra Leone. I was there to visit a project to improve access to radio programs for rural women through the formation of Listening Clubs. The Clubs are very popular and women are coming together in clinics or schools to listen to programs on health, domestic violence, small business development, and early marriage.  What I discovered however was that the women were also “downloading” the radio feature by using the Bluetooth function on their cell phones – copying the audio file to their mobile phone memory chip – and sharing the program with others. Several women told me they had made their husbands listen to a recent program on domestic violence.

This experience is a reminder of the enduring power of media, and radio in particular, to promote gender equality and women’s empowerment, and proof that women themselves will drive this transformation.  They will do so on the airwaves, and in the cities and villages, by telling their stories, by exploring truths through debate and dialogue, and by listening.

I’d like to mention three things today that I believe merit our attention.

ICTs are being used in new, inventive ways to solve practical problems- Bluetooth is a good example, as is M-pesa, a mobile banking solution used by 65% of Kenyan households. 60% of Africans now live in areas with mobile coverage, and are using this new connectivity to access the information and services they need and can use.

So the first point I would like to make is that to have impact, media must build and engage an audience with topics that are relevant, a programming schedule that understands the habits of its target audience, presentation that is professional, and speaks the languages of the population. Women charge their phones, walk to a Listening Center, copy and share files because they believe there is value in what they are getting in exchange. Programming in women’s issues is not just for women, and radio can play a role in opening up a space around topics that are otherwise not readily discussed in families and couples.

–               There are tools for this. Monitoring and evaluation must be integral to any media operation, with focus groups and quantitative surveys systematically undertaken to ensure programming is relevant, credible, and meeting the needs of the population.  In Mali for example, at Studio Tamani we identified a gap in available programming on topics that interest women and families, and to fill this need we recently introduced a weekly magazine Toutes les Femmes du Mali, which last week discussed the very sensitive topic of female circumcision.

My second point is about safety, something we think about all the time. Women face particular risks during crisis and those risks are magnified for female journalists.  Since March 2013 we have been especially preoccupied with the security of our staff at Radio Ndeke Luka in Central African Republic.

My colleague Sylvie Panika is the Director of the radio in Bangui and as such she has ultimate responsibility to ensure the safety of her staff of 40 professionals. She has kept this trusted and extremely popular radio on air, and has resisted demands from two successive regimes to use the station as a vehicle to spread propaganda. Sylvie is a model of courage and professionalism for all of us in the media.

What concrete steps might we take to ensure the safety of our female journalists in Central Africa Republic and other countries where local news organizations and UN peacekeeping radios provide essential lifesaving information?

-The Security Council can integrate the protection of journalists in the mandates of peacekeeping missions, including other forces acting with a Security Council mandate.

– In DRC, South Sudan and Liberia, the SC can provide for the long term legacy of UN peacekeeping radios that broadcast impartial, pluralist and reliable information for the whole population, and in doing so greatly contribute to an environment where local journalists are able to work more freely and safely. These UN radios are also a training ground for some of the best female broadcasters on the air today. What can we learn from this in order to replicate this experience more widely across the sector?

Lastly, more has to be done to encourage women to choose radio journalism as a profession. Last month at Fourah Bay College in Freetown I joined our team at Cotton Tree News, where students and young professionals are producing news that is broadcast across the country via community radio partners. Sadly, men outnumbered women 2:1 in the newsroom. So how do we attract more women to broadcast journalism and how do we provide an environment where they can develop professionally?

–               We should support women’s professional associations as agencies for training, collaboration, and advocacy, and should invest in university level programs that offer theory and hands on training, interdisciplinary collaboration, and exchange at the regional level. The MIT Center for Civic Media- which brings together technical inventiveness and the journalistic tools of civic engagement is one model.

–               Newsrooms should mirror society in its diversity: across gender, religion, tribe and ethnicity. Editors and media managers should foster collegiality inside the radio, and ensure that men and women are heard equally both in the editorial meetings and on the airwaves.

Media, on Short Wave, FM or on a mobile phone via Bluetooth, has the power to transform both the women who work in the media and the many, many more who are in the audience. Understanding what they want, what they listen to, what information they hunger for and need in their lives is at the core of our work as broadcasters.

Above, Irina Bokova, UNESCO Director General, Peter Launsky-Tieffenthal, Under-Secretary General for Communications and Public Information, Anne Bennett, Pamela Falk, President of the UN Correspondents Association. Photo credit: Melanie Futorian