The extent to which the media influences public opinion is contested. However, many agree that the mass media plays a significant role in shaping public opinion and it is this critical media role that acted as an important catalyst in the establishment of Gender Links (GL).
It is an unfortunate fact that the media of the 21st century is still very sexist and biased in its reporting of women and women’s issues.
Colleen Lowe Morna, founding executive director of GL, identifies the media as lagging far behind in the realisation and institutionalisation of gender equality both within the industry and through the work that it produces. In South Africa, the Gender and Media Baseline Study (2003) found that women constitute 19% of news sources. “That basically means that women are seen but not heard,” she says.
GL’s slogan is “promoting gender equality in and through the media.” This young but highly visible NGO was launched in March 2001 and works largely within the Southern African community.
A Media Savvy Gender Activist
Lowe Morna has an impressive background in both the media and gender fields. Born in Zimbabwe but with South African parents and citizenship, she spent the first fifteen years of her career as a journalist specialising in gender and development in Harare. She worked for Inter Press Service in Harare as coordinator of the Africa office; correspondent for the London-based South Magazine and Africa Editor of the New Delhi-based Women's Feature Service. Lowe-Morna subsequently worked in various posts for the Commonwealth Secretariat including as an advisor on gender and institutional development.
A born leader and visionary, from 1997-1999 Lowe Morna was also the founding chief executive officer of the South African Commission on Gender Equality (CGE). She noted that the key challenge in South Africa is the gap between the rhetoric of gender equality and the reality on the ground.
Promoting Gender Equality in and through the Media
GL has assigned itself the task of assisting in the creation of a Southern African region in which women and men are free to realise their full potential and participate equally in all aspects of public and private life without fear of retaliation from any person. The organisation does this by raising awareness of the under representation of women in the media as well as their portrayal in a narrow range of roles: primarily as victims of violence or as sex objects.
GL’s focus on gender has varied dimensions, including research, training and advocacy for the purposes of achieving greater sensitivity and balance within the media and in its editorial content. GL is currently working with a consortium of media development organisations in the region in a Media Action Plan on HIV and AIDS and Gender that involves developing diversity policies in 80 percent of the newsrooms in the Southern African region.
The organisation has strategically positioned itself in such a way that it highlights the fractures in the linkages between gender and media. GL’s work is aimed at changing this by influencing the mainstream media to view men and women in a more equitable way.
GL’s strategic positioning has evolved and expanded over time to include work in the gender and governance field.
In her message featured in the organisation’s 2005/06 annual report, Lowe Morna, explains, the organisation realised that in order for it’s work to bear fruit, GL would also have to work with those people within society who have the capacity and the ability to inform and shape media content on gender issues.
One way in which GL accomplishes this is through the project Write about Rights. Through this project, GL produces an average of ten opinion and commentary articles a month which it disseminates to the mainstream media across the region. “We help to create that content,” she reiterates, “We make it an issue.” However, GL doesn’t just influence the media and leave it at that, it also keeps the media in check through its Mirror on the Media project which acts as a media watchdog throughout the region.
An important manner in which GL achieves its goals in Southern Africa is by providing secretariat support to sister organisation, the Gender and Media Southern African (GEMSA) Network. Much like the partnership between the Aids Law Project and the Treatment Action Campaign, GEMSA is an important constituency based accountability partner of GL.
Through this partnership, GL works with organisations and activists across the Southern African region in 14 SADC countries engaging with over 40 media NGOs and gender organisations.
From 16 Days of Activism to 365 Days
Lowe Morna highlights the 16 Days of Activism Campaign as a perfect example of gender activist’s usage of mainstream media to bring issues into the public domain. GL played an essential role in placing this campaign on the Southern African agenda by providing strategic communication training for gender activists.
According to Lowe Morna, five years ago in South Africa, very few people knew about this international campaign. However, as a result of the work of GL’ and partner organisations, this campaign has been thrust into the public spotlight. With the media’s assistance this campaign has gained momentum in South Africa to the point that the government has now taken over the campaign.
Moreover, as a result of lobbying in which GL has played a key role, the state has adopted a 365 Day National Action Plan to End Gender violence. The concept of 365 Days of Action was born out of nationwide consultations that took place during the 2005 campaign, including “Cyber Dialogues”, hosted by the Government Communication and Information System (GCIS) in collaboration with GL in all SA’s provinces. This year long response to gender violence was endorsed by the Deputy President in her closing speech of the campaign.
The Potholed Road to Sustainability
In spite of its enormous growth and success over the past six years, GL has had to overcome a few hiccups along the way.
Similar to most South African NGOs, GL has had to contend with funding shortfalls related to core costs. In 2006 GL found itself in the ridiculous situation of having to manage 18 projects for the purposes of sustaining the organisation.
The funding dilemma has also had a negative effect on the organisations’ staff turn-over. With a staff capacity of 12 people, some of whom are part-time; GL has had to find creative ways to retain senior staff members.
Lowe Morna submits that a great deal of effort is spent trying to convince donors about the need for multi-year financing that will enhance the organisation’s sustainability.
On a more positive note, the organisation has grown from strength to strength since its establishment. Its first grant ever was a tiny R250 000. Currently GL commands an annual budget in the region of R7 million.
Steady and Gradual Process
Despite the challenges that GL has to contend with, Lowe Morna argues that “We are here to stay.” In the past six years, the organisation has developed a credible brand. Gender Links has become a household name that is readily recognisable by the media and the community at large.
Because of the work and agitation of GL, gender issues have been and will continue to be brought into the media’s spotlight. In the foreseeable future, GL will continue to influence the media for the purpose of “accelerating gender equality in the SADC.” It will continue to do this by building the capacity of networks and the public to engage critically with the media, by linking gender activists with the media and giving voice to women.
- Badumile Duma, Information Coordinator, SANGONeT.
- Pictures: Courtesy of Gender Links.