Challenges Faced By Women Journalists In African Societies
Paper I presented during the just ended West African conference for journalists in Accra,Ghana organised by The Media Project.
In most African communities, the woman’s place is in the backyard. In African traditional religion, Islam and even Christianity, she is considered inferior to the man and not expected to talk in public. This is explained by the story of creation which says the woman was formed from the rib of the man to be a helper to him Religion is a very deciphering factor to most Africans. Understandably, the helper cannot function on equal ranks with the main work man. The woman’s place in the African society is clearly distinct from that of the man in all spheres of life. Backed by a patriarchal system of functioning, opinions of the woman `s purpose, expectations and aptitude are deep rooted, clearly demarcating what they expect of themselves and what society expects of them.
Over the years, with civilization and the influx of the western culture women are beginning to leave the domestic milieu into frontline or public occupations that place them at equal positions with men. This phenomenon has however not succeeded to erase the mentality that women are inferior to men physically, intellectually, spiritually emotionally etc.Women who today, find themselves in professions like journalism that were male dominated in the yester years are faced with enormous challenges from the different facets of society as they execute their functions.. The purpose of this paper is to examine the difficulties female journalists face in carrying out their functions in Africa and also to propose possible solutions.
The patriarchal nature of the African society extends right into the newsroom. The male journalists are given pride of place to the female not minding their competence. Most editors have the stereotypical idea that women have a limited intellectual capacity. In most African newsrooms female journalists usually do not receive equal opportunity to training and career advancement with their male counterparts. They are hardly ever assigned to strong political, investigative stories, for example covering the president or parliament. They are most often assigned to the “less important “beats like gender violence, health and beauty and cookery tips. The female journalist is regarded by her male employer, editor and counterparts as a woman not as a colleague. They are rarely given the opportunity to proof their competence and if by accident they come up with some applaudable results they are accused of having used their “woman power” to achieve. They are perceived and treated as dummies that are not able to bring out the news behind the news and are never given the opportunity to proof the contrary.
Most employers of female journalists in Africa do not treat them equally with their male counterparts in terms of regular payment of salary, pay package/qualification, maternity leaves, social insurance benefits etc.In Cameroon this is most rampant in the private sector where the employers treat employees according to their whims and caprices. Some female journalists in the private sector in Cameroon have been forced out of their jobs after they got pregnant and some have been refused maternity leaves while others have been granted unpaid maternity leaves.
Compared to the men women have very complex and delicate bodies that warrant extra care. Male journalists can spend the night anywhere and be up and going the next morning without thoroughly cleaning their bodies but that is not possible for women especially when they are on their monthly periods. This makes it difficult for women to be effective on certain assignments.
Childbirth is a natural phenomenon that most women go through at a certain stage in their lives. Unfortunately pregnancy comes with a lot of changes that are sometimes not welcomed by employers of female journalists. This is real particularly in the case of TV presenters who in most cases do not look the same when they get pregnant. They often gain weight, develop pimples, and pregnancy masks that make them not to appear attractive as before. In Cameroon some female journalists have been forced out of their jobs for being pregnant. Some were employed upon agreeing with their employers that they would not be pregnant through out the period of their employment. A journalist working for a private television station in Douala Cameroon was forced to work for 14 hours a day without a break and to cover the most difficult news elements like strikes and landslides for all the nine months of her pregnancy and was placed on three months of unpaid maternity leave so as not to loose her job. In the same station it has been made a taboo for a journalist to be pregnant. In the event of a pregnancy the journalist is highly stigmatized and treated with disdain even by fellow female colleagues.
Female journalists are still accorded the weaker sex position and considered not intelligent enough to take major decisions and do news analysis.
According to a report by Reporters Without Borders, “though many journalists who belong to the fairer sex have been involved in bringing up to date and precise news to the forefront and in spite of the fact that numerous women take up journalism and press reporting as professions there are very few women who have been able to make it big here” Decision making and editorial positions in Africa are still highly male dominated despite a strong feminine presence in newsrooms. A Television proprietor once emphasized to his workers that women constitute an important part of the “décor” of his station. The reality of this statement cannot be overemphasized in a working environment where women have no say in the daily decisions made. They are expected to look beautiful so as to attract the audience and nothing too intellectual is required of them. During the fourth UN world conference on women held in Beijing in 1995, gender disparities within the African media featured amongst the 12 important points discussed with reference made to the fact that African women media practitioners do not always hold decision making positions .Sadly enough male domination of the decision making corridors of the media has led to their control of the outlets of expression thereby setting the agenda for a strong patriarchal order in most African communities. The scarcity of female columnists in most African newsrooms makes it difficult for burning issues to be discussed from a female perspective. A majority of media owners are males and they decide which position females occupy, making it difficult for the regulation of newsroom management policies that would keep women at ease; Such as maternity leaves, sexual assault sanctions etc.The blend of a strong feminine presence in African newsrooms and very poor representation of women in media decision making bodies has created a safe haven for predominantly male hatched ideas to be accepted by media out-siders as products of joint efforts by male and female media experts. In Cameroon for example there is single female editor in chief.
Sexual harassment continues to be a predominant challenge to female journalists Africa wide as they complain that they are often treated as sexual objects at work. The newsroom has been described as the most hostile environment so far as sexual violence is concerned. Female journalists are exposed to language and actions that embarrass them sexually as they relate to the public and even with their colleagues and bosses at work place, these come in ways as subtle as jokes about their feminine features like breasts and hips that keep them uncomfortable. They are often regarded by the society as “free women” because their job necessitates that they interact with many categories of men. A young female journalist in Yaounde says as a woman she faces a lot of challenges when she goes out for interviews as the male sources are often more interested in her feminine personality than the journalist in her. “Most interviews always end with requests for lunch dates and in the case of a blatant refusal, an important source of information might as well be lost, so one has to be very tactful in turning down these numerous advances” she says. She also says the extremely poor pay packages offered to young female journalists often tempt them to accept gifts of money from men who in the long run begin making sexual advances. Some unscrupulous editors also demand amorous relationships from female journalists before granting them favours.Working late at night has also been a nightmare for female journalists as some have been raped while returning home.
The celebrity status that often accompanies the journalism career ironically becomes a bitter pill for most women in the profession. As aforementioned they are regarded as free women by the society. Most African men say they cannot have journalists as wives. Men find it difficult to believe that a woman can be in such a profession and still be a faithful and submissive wife. It is difficult to find an African man who will permit his wife travel and spend days out of the home for work. Some men Say they cannot permit their wives to appear on TV screen for any purpose as it is a way of exposing her to other men. Female TV presenters receive a greater portion of this stigma. Men who have allowed their wives into the profession have been described by their families as weaklings who cannot control their wives. For this reason there is a high rate of spinsterhood amongst journalists in Africa.
In Islam, the African Traditional religion and even Christianity women there are laws that do not permit the woman to talk in public. Although with the emergence of different schools of thoughts women have begun stepping out as public speakers, some still regard it abominable for women to talk in public. The existence of a phrase like “Allah created the woman deficient” is enough reason for a Moslem not to find a report done by a female reporter credible.
The longs hours of work that characterizes journalism is a veritable challenge for married female journalists .In Africa it is the principal responsibility of the woman to provide domestic care in the home. Being efficient at work while maintaining order in their homes has been an uphill task to female journalists over the years.” I wake up every day at 4am to cook the days meal ,then I prepare breakfast for my family of six comprising of my husband, myself and four children, after which I bath an dress the kids for school while they are at breakfast table I bath and dress up. I do all these with my radio on so I can listen to the day’s news. My day at work begins with news conference at 7am and ends at 8pm after evening news. When I get back home by 8pm I am extremely tired yet I have to ensure my kids have done their homework and send them to bed. There are days when I have to spend the whole night attending to a sick or hungry baby and still have to be up early morning to meet up with the day’s schedule. I have a house help but she does only laundry and cleaning because my husband prefers to eat only what I prepare”.
In Radio Hot Cocoa, a local radio station in Bamenda Cameroon, female journalists are forced to bring their babies to work and place them in cartons that have been adapted to baby cots while they work in the studio. They say they are bound to function that way to keep their jobs since there are no maternity leaves and their poor pay packages do not permit them to hire nannies.
Female journalists should be more assertive and carry out even the relegated tasks assigned to them with a lot of diligence so as to wipe out the mentality that they are not apt enough for delicate assignments and leadership positions. They should attach importance even to the “less important beats” they are assigned to in order to make impact
They should maintain high moral values in their way of dressing and interaction with the public so as to avoid high rates of sexual harassment. Relationships with sources and other members of the public should be highly professional to avoid giving room for unnecessary advances.
Male journalists should involve their female colleagues in the coverage of hard news so as to make them develop the necessary skills through practice.
Media owners and editors should make efforts to change stereotypical views about women. If women in the newsroom are not empowered it would be difficult for the status of women to change in society. They should also create policies that strictly sanction perpetrators of sexual harassment.
Female journalists are encouraged to form associations where they can discuss their problems and arrive at common solutions.