OPINION | Voiceless in the news: Women left out in the media

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Research shows that the voices of women are being sidelined or silenced by the country's media which has massive implications, writes Tasneem Carrim.

 The media have played a vital role in informing and educating all South Africans during the Covid-19 pandemic.

As government, we rely heavily on our partners in the media to communicate daily updates on lockdown measures, changes in policy, government interventions as well as government responses to rising infections and measures being implemented by the Department of Health.

At face value this has covered all the bases, but once you scratch the surface it becomes clear that there are deeper nuances to the coverage, and that this plays a major role on life experiences of people during the pandemic.

During a recent webinar, it was revealed how the underuse of women voices in the news coverage of Covid-19 affects their ability to shape policies that are being developed in response to the pandemic.

Luba Kassova, co-founder and director of the international audience strategy consultancy AKAS, unpacked the research report titled: "The Missing Perspectives of Women in Covid-19 News."

The study, commissioned by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation across six countries, was aimed at understanding the extent to which women were represented in news globally.

It was analysed through the perspective of three indicators namely; the proportion of women as sources of expertise, the proportion of stories with women as protagonists and the proportion of stories that had a gender angle. 

Conducted between March and June, and conducted in India, Nigeria, Kenya, South Africa, the UK and the US, the study provides a fascinating perspective on how missing voices and perspectives of women impact the real world.

Although there are major shortcomings in all the countries, South Africa is the leading country, out of the six, where women have been an essential part of the country-level decision making. 

South Africa is the only country at near gender parity on women's political participation in Parliament and government, and we are leading in regulatory provision for gender equality. The report also highlights that gender parity has been largely achieved in newsrooms in South Africa, and that we are ahead in terms of representation of women in news leadership.

Although pleasing to be confirmed by an independent source, this part of the report is hardly surprising given our firm commitment to women empowerment. Our Constitution and our laws protect the rights and dignity of all in our country.

Gender Equality Bill

The Gender Equality Bill was put in place specifically to accelerate the empowerment of women and attain 50/50 gender parity for the country, and the Department of Women, Youth and Persons with Disabilities safeguards and further enhances the progress we have made.

The more troubling aspects of the report show that in all the countries surveyed, patriarchal values are the norm to a greater or lesser extent. This acts as a significant barrier against women's visibility in news. This is a greatly disconcerting finding as women have a unique range of socio-economic; cultural; health, healthcare; and psychological challenges not faced by men.

The report also shows that unique health-related challenges are often under-reported in Covid-19 news. For instance, women are more likely to fall ill in some countries, while in some socially conservative countries women may be left out of testing. It is also true that women are more likely to be frontline workers and thus are more exposed to the virus.

Despite the array of challenges identified in the report that face women, coverage of women in the media remained very low.  The report shows that in South Africa for the period 1 March 2020 to 15 April 2020, the voices of men in the media was at 77 percent.

The breakdown of this coverage shows that women's scientific or political expertise is underused and undervalued in Covid-19 news coverage. Thus women fail to shape the news frames which influence the policies developed in response to the pandemic.

READ | The media have muted the voices of women during Covid-19. Can the tide be turned?

Given the myriad socio-economic issues faced by women and the threat of gender-based violence, the onus rests on both government and the media to do better. We cannot allow the voices of women to remain largely silent in what is the greatest threat to this generation and our way of life. 

The report pinpoints that government can bridge the divide by providing journalists with lists of women experts on health, medicine and research. It also shows the importance of continually raising awareness of bias towards experts in news about Covid-19 being men.

Far from just identifying challenges, the report also provides concrete suggestions for greater gender inclusive coverage. It shows that the media must try to amplify the views of women who are political, healthcare and business leaders when reporting on Covid-19 stories.

It also calls on the media to develop relevant story lines that focus on Covid-19's impact on women's employment, healthcare, reproductive rights, education, and gender-based violence.


Being part of this webinar was truly an eye opening experience. It was interesting to note that the challenges were similar across all six nations, and that whether consciously or unconsciously this impacted on women's voices in the media.

As government broadly and GCIS more specifically, we know that we can and must do better. Our partnership with the media is strong and this is an avenue where we can further extend our cooperation. By extending women's voices we can begin to change the narrative, and ensure that women are not sidelined or seen as just an afterthought.

With the 16 Days of Activism for No Violence against Women and Children campaign fast approaching, there has never been a better time to profile the amazing women in our society and the work they are doing. As a country, we have a duty to tell their stories of anguish and hope, against the backdrop of a pandemic and the harsh realities of gender-based violence. No longer must we allow voices to go unheard or be silenced.

- Tasneem Carrim is GCIS Chief Director for Policy and Research.

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