It was 1983, when his country was still in the full throes of political upheaval, that the Burkinabe revolutionary Thomas Sankara uttered the famous words: “I can hear the roar of women’s silence.” These words recognise that the status of women in society cannot be improved if the voices of women are unheard.
Twenty-four years since attaining our liberation, the ANC-led government can be proud of the gains we have achieved in ensuring the greater representation of women across most parts of society. Prior to 1994, women constituted only 3% of MPs in the apartheid Parliament. Today, women comprise 44% of MPs, and 43% of Cabinet members are women. This is the tenth highest gender representation in the world according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union.
Thanks to a clear programme of mainstreaming gender across government planning, policy, programmes and decision-making, more women are represented in mid to senior management levels in government. For example, a quarter of state-owned companies are headed by women, nearly a third of our ambassadors are women, and 39% of mayors are female.
These gains, however, are not reflected in the popular representation of women in South Africa’s mass media. numerous regional and country-specific studies indicate that the multiplicity of roles of women in our society – as sisters, wives and mothers, doctors, lawyers, economists and scientists – is not being adequately reflected in the media.
Since the news media is the primary vehicle through which social, health, education, business and other financial information is disseminated to the public, there is an urgent need to reflect on how women are represented.
A 2015 SADC-wide study by GenderLinks into gender representation in the media found that only 20% of news sources and only 27% of images used were women. If and when women are quoted in the news media, it is mainly about social issues, health and celebrity, art and media. There is a clear bias in favour of men’s voices when it comes to news stories on business and financial news – both as news sources and news subjects. The media fares better in the political arena, where women’s voices are amplified by virtue of their representation within the ANC, Cabinet and Parliament.
Even then, we have seen examples where senior politicians are referred to and sometimes even have their performance measured in relation to marital status. In other instances, senior women politicians are described as ‘irrational’, ’emotional’ or ‘difficult’, terms that are seldom used to describe their male counterparts.
Even more worryingly, senior women politicians find their appearance coming in for scrutiny by media commentators – and their ability to do their job implicitly judged on the basis of what one writer called a woman’s ‘to-be-looked-at-ness.’
Women comprise just over half of our population, so representation matters. Representation ‘engages feelings, attitudes and emotions’. If the media consistently portrays women in a manner that does not do justice to the multiple roles they occupy in society, readers and viewers will make certain assumptions.
The representation of women is in itself a reflection of power relations in our society. It also has an impact on the expectations and ambitions of women, especially young women. Constantly seeing strong, capable women as experts in the media offers a level of aspiration. On the other hand, being bombarded with images of women either as suffering or poverty stricken perpetuates a sense of disempowerment.
Gender representation in newsrooms is also a concern. Although various studies show that more women, especially young black women, are joining newsrooms, there has been a decline in the number of women editors in the media. The same goes for the number of women who serve on the boards of news media companies.
The proliferation of alternative media and citizen journalism has seen more women behind the lens; women who have the confidence to pitch, produce and air their own stories without the constricts of a news editor. This new generation of media practitioners and activists have a vital role to play because of their levels of direct accessibility to audiences.
It cannot be assumed that having senior women heading major titles or broadcasters will ensure that gender is mainstreamed, but it may contribute to women being more broadly represented in the news agenda.
The media needs to represent the diversity of causes, values and experiences of women in this country. It needs to ensure that the voices of women are heard, whether they are rural or urban, unemployed or working, unskilled or professional, married or single.
It is time to move beyond gender stereotypes in the media, be they of physical attractiveness, passivity or victimhood. In the same way in which racial representation in the media has been challenged and to some extent remedied, it is time to critically examine the way in which editorial content is presented, and develop a new, accurate, empowering narrative. The roar of silence must be replaced by the loud, clear and unrestrained voices of women.