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Imagine media that promote gender justice

Joanne Sandler

The following article is a shortened version of a speech given at the WACC Congress on “Communication is Peace: Building viable communities” (South Africa, 6-10 October 2008). At that time, Joanne Sandler was Deputy Executive Director-Program of the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM). While the examples of how women are using “the radical potential of media to contribute to progress towards gender justice” may appear dated, they remain relevant and inspiring in today’s changed context.

The title of my presentation is “Imagine media that promote gender justice”. We have to imagine it because it needs to proliferate at all levels: in the mainstream media, in the blogosphere, in alternative media. It needs to exist because gender justice is critical in its own right, central to the achievement of justice in general and interdependent with the achievement of social and economic justice.

It is important, also, because the path to gender equality and women’s empowerment – a project that gained steam with the first world conference on women in 1975 and continues on a fairly bumpy road until today – is uneven. One could reasonably argue – and this is the irony of work on gender equality – that there is much to celebrate with data showing good progress in many areas.

The media have huge and largely untapped power to promote and protect gender justice. We know because we’ve seen it. Many of you have probably heard the story of Mukhtar Mai in Pak-istan who was gang-raped on the orders of a council of tribal elders from her village of Meerwala. Mai herself was not charged with any wrongdoing, but a rumour had spread through the village that her 14-year-old brother had been seen in public with a girl from a rival tribe. When Mai heard that the rival clan was going to put her brother on trial she rushed before the self-appointed councillors to plead for mercy on his behalf. The elders heard her plea. They spared Mai’s brother and ordered that she should be raped, explaining that the rape would shame her family and thus restore the offended tribe’s honour. Four volunteers carried out the sentence in the presence of a cheering mob.

Mai’s attackers had assumed she would be too ashamed to reveal what had happened, but with the assistance of her friends and the imam, she got word out to the local and international media. The media attention shamed the civil authorities into action. The tribal elders and the rapists were brought to trial and sentenced to life in prison. Mai, who has since received international honours, used her compensation money to build the first of two schools in her village and now campaigns for women’s rights around the world. The resolution of her case and national and the international attention it received in the media contributed to the passage in 2006 of amendments to a 1976 rape law in Pakistan. These included eliminating the death penalty for extramarital sex and easing a clause on making rape victims produce four witnesses to prove the case.

Without media attention, Mai could have died, either by her own hand or that of others. Instead, she was named Glamour Magazine’s Woman of the Year in 2005. That is the power of the media: to save lives and to change them.

But the media are also perpetrators of gender injustice. The concept of gender justice is complex, but we certainly know gender injustice when we see it. Around the world, the distortion by media of women’s voice and women’s lives is increasingly being recognized, but the response has been inadequate. This is an issue of accountability. UNIFEM just issued its biannual publication, Progress of the World’s Women, which focuses on gender and accountability and asks the question: Who Answers to Women. We identify two dimensions of accountability from a gender justice perspective:

Answerability – that is, the ability of women and men to call for answers for the policies, programmes and resources that power-holders make available to promote and protect women’s rights.

Corrective action – that is, power-holders, once confronted with the need for answers, must take corrective action to ensure redress.

In relation to gender justice and the media, the media’s answerability and willingness to take corrective action depend to a large extent on the push that women’s rights defenders provide, the extent to which men and women together use their power of choice to show a preference for media that promotes gender justice, and the generation of high quality content for social justice media produced by women’s human rights defenders.

Media’s radical potential

My presentation today will focus how women are using the radical potential of the media to contribute to progress towards gender justice. One of the key assets that women are bringing – along with other social justice groups – is a purposeful use of the media to achieve broader social justice and gender justice aims, to challenge discriminatory gender norms, and make visible solutions that lead to change. It will look at two changes in particular: using information and media to stimulate greater accountability for sexual violence in conflict situations via the UN Security Council; and using media and media campaigns to encourage men to take responsibility and action for ending violence against women.

My first example deals with sexual violence in conflict. Over the past years, many manifestations of violence against women are receiving more attention, including in the media. Too often, this is sensationalized, showing women as victims rather than as agents of change which – in the face of horrifying odds – they often are. And, while there may be more coverage, there is not necessarily more action or adequate funds to meaningfully address this hidden pandemic which many have referred to as “the missing MDG” or, at least, “the missing MDG target”.

In 2006, in one of her earliest acts as Africa’s first democratically elected female head of state, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf ushered in the country’s historic anti-rape legislation to send a powerful message that crimes of sexual violence committed during and after the war would not be tolerated. Rape remains a pandemic in Liberia, but the President along with many of her male and female ministers are unswerving in their commitment to address it.

That sexual violence in conflict is now receiving more attention is due to those who have worked for years to put it on the agenda and who deserve special mention. Groups like Isis WICCE in Uganda and many others have helped us to focus on the numbers, which themselves should galvanize us to action. 20,000 – 50,000 women were raped during the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina in the early 1990s. 50,000 – 64,000 internally displaced women in Sierra Leone were sexually attacked by combatants. An average of 40 women are raped every day in South Kivu, DRC. Yet, the phrase “no more and never again” does not seem to have resonance when it comes to sexual violence.

This continues to happen despite the commitment of the highest Security institution in the world – the UN Security Council – through Security Council resolution 1325 on women peace and security. It continues to happen, in part, because of inadequate accountability on the part of those who can make a difference.

It is revealing to compare accountability mechanisms for two Security Council resolutions passed in 2000: resolution 1612 on children and armed conflict, with resolution 1325 on women, peace and security.


  • The Children’s resolution includes monitoring and reporting on violations; the women’s resolution only monitors UN agency actions
  • The Children’s resolution involves the Secretary-General in answerability, with reports on Member States violations; the women’s resolution has no answerability mechanism;
  • The Children’s resolution reviews progress through a working group of the Security Council chaired by a Permanent Member and bi-monthly meetings; the women’s resolution has an annual and voluntary ‘commemoration’ of the resolution;
  • On the ground, the Children’s resolution has country-level task forces that monitor and press for compliance; UN organizations involvement in compliance with the women’s resolution is ad hoc, depending on available

I show these differences to make the point that, when it comes to the rights of women and girls, there are often distinct differences in what institutions see as their responsibility. Recognizing these gaps, there has been – over the past several years – a growing interest in the Security Council agreeing to a follow up resolution to 1325 with more accountability built in. This led to Security Council resolution 1820 on preventing sexual violence in conflict in June of 2008.

Information and media played a key role in moving Security Council members to agreement on Resolution 1820. Articles in leading newspapers about the atrocities that women faced were instrumental. Women’s groups around the world were instrumental. Leading governments lobbied for it. UNIFEM’s contribution to this broad-based strategy was to uncover and bring to the attention of Security Council members the practical approaches to dealing with this issue, believing that one of the obstacles was that even where there is political will, there is also a lack of knowledge about concrete steps to be taken.

We worked with UN Action against Sexual Violence – a coalition of 12 UN organizations and departments – to focus on the potential role that military peacekeepers could play in increasing women’s security and preventing sexual violence. Whereas most discussions about peacekeepers and sexual violence have focused on them as perpetrators, we took another approach. We produced an inventory of what peacekeepers are doing actually to protect women, even in an ad hoc fashion. As we discovered, too often peacekeepers do not have an explicit mandate to protect women and thus their ability to do so is weakened.

The inventory looked, first, at where women were most vulnerable. Research as far back as 1999 in refugee camps in Kenya showed that 90% of reported rapes of women took place when women and girls travel into the desert, bush or forest for food, fuel or water. These rapes have become so commonplace that they are referred to as “firewood” rapes. The inventory showed that, recognizing this, some of the peacekeepers in DRC, for instance, began accompanying women, using their vehicle headlights to shine light on the paths, honk their horns, and take other measures to create safe passage. But, in the absence of orders and resources, these actions were generally reactive, short-term and ad hoc.

The production of an inventory of what peacekeepers were doing in an ad hoc way – and then bringing this to the attention of high-level decision makers and military commanders at a conference in London with the Governments of the UK and Canada in May 2008 – was an important input to getting the Security Council to develop stronger accountability mechanisms for addressing sexual violence in conflict.

Another component that contributed to the eventual outcome was the independent documentary called The Greatest Silence: Rape in the Congo, which won the 2008 Sundance Special Jury Prize in the Documentary Category. Lisa Jackson, a freelance independent filmmaker, produced this searing look at Congolese women who survived gang rape and mutilation only to find themselves bearing the shame of their family’s rejection. It was produced in association with HBO, and broadcast to HBO’s 35 million subscribers.

While Lisa Jackson did not have a Security Council resolution in mind when she produced the film, strategic use of the documentary played an important role. For example, the United States Ambassador to the United Nations saw the film and said publicly that it inspired him to introduce resolution 1820 in the UN Security Council. The film is an excellent example of how media – in conjunction with other focused advocacy strategies – has the potential to lead to concrete political action.

This role of media in accelerating progress toward greater accountability for gender justice – in this instance, in relation to Sexual Violence – is a good example of purposeful media. The result is that the Security Council now recognizes sexual violence as an issue which then justifies a security response. Once UN peacekeepers have a mandate and the resources to protect women collecting fuel, firewood and water, thousands, if not tens of thousands of lives can be saved and their dignity preserved. And the notion of national, international and human security has been broadened significantly.


Applauding purposeful media

My next example is by Breakthrough, an international human rights organization. In 2008, Breakthrough launched its third multimedia campaign – “Bell Bajao” (which in Hindi means “ring the bell”) – a call to both men and women in India to intervene to stop domestic violence. UNIFEM and the UN Trust Fund to End Violence against Women that UNIFEM manages on behalf of the UN system are both supporters of Breakthrough’s work.

Here, again, we see purposeful media that proposes actions that viewers can take. India passed an important law on domestic violence law (2005), but like so many laws, implementation is not proceeding adequately. That’s why Breakthrough is also partnering with the Indian government, who are taking a leadership role in this campaign and thereby also increasing state accountability for taking action to address domestic violence.

The campaign was designed pro bono by one of India’s leading advertising agency and its brand ambassador was movie star Boman Irani. It is being distributed across major Indian TV and radio channels and through powerful collaborations with media partners like The Viewspaper. It includes an interactive website for the audience to post comments and questions.

The Group Creative head of Olgivy and Mather – the pro bono advertising agency – highlighted the campaign’s central focus: “Domestic Violence is a subject where the man is always seen as the culprit. We wanted men to be our partners supporting the cause…we wanted a strong call to action. A call to action that makes people say … I can do (something). Ring the Bell fit that brief perfectly.”

Some of the elements that make this a strong campaign include: a) the partnerships – which created a top notch product with high production values and wide distribution; b) a positive message about taking action in the community, that appeals to men and provides information on services rather than portraying women as victims.

My final example is the Internet-based “Say No” Campaign launched by UNIFEM’s Goodwill Ambassador, Nicole Kidman, in November 2007 and its contribution to the global campaign on ending violence against women launched by the UN Secretary-General in February 2008. “Say No” asks citizens and leaders to spend less than a minute clicking their mouses to express their commitment to end violence against women. We’ve also supplemented the internet campaign with high level signing ceremonies and postcards. It prompts citizen action and links power-holders to the issue.

At the launch of his campaign in February 2008, Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon committed the UN to challenge men to stand up with him to end violence. He said, “Violence against women and girls makes its hideous imprint on every continent, country and culture. It is time to focus on the concrete actions that all of us can and must take to prevent and eliminate this scourge… It is time to break through the walls of silence, and make legal norms a reality in women’s lives.”


Institutional transformation in the media

These few examples do not represent fundamental institutional transformation in the media, which is what we need if we are to have a media that actively promotes gender justice. And there are four areas of work ahead of us that I think are crucial and receiving too little attention.

  • The first goes back to accountability: Commercially owned media understand their accountability in the context of shareholders and profit; state-owned and public media have not been much better on gender justice. So, how do we strengthen their accountability?

Progress of the World’s Women makes the point that there are two pathways that women are using to demand greater accountability from power-holders: voice and choice. That is using the power of organizing and monitoring and their power as consumers or voters. We need to strengthen media monitoring to build media literacy so that both men and women are demanding media that promote – rather than erode – gender justice and so that they have the capacity to call for corrective action when the opposite is taking place.

  • We need to produce gender and social justice content with high production values. Too often, the media that social justice groups produce cannot compete with the production quality that mainstream media That was Breakthrough’s goal: use popular culture, partnerships with groups like MTV and Olgivy and Mather, to produce content that looked as good as any other. There needs to be a huge increase in skills, resources and partnerships so that the gender justice media gets produced and can compete in the marketplace.
  • We need to link media with action and solutions. We need to go beyond broad-based awareness raising and offer people opportunities to make a The new media give us that opportunity: purposeful media that use the full power of the media to inform, connect, change minds and act to achieve gender and social justice.
  • Partnerships, partnerships, We cannot do this alone. Women cannot do this alone. Faith-based groups cannot do this alone. Men cannot do this alone. Even the state cannot do this alone. If communication is peace, then partnerships are the pathway to peace.


Using the full power of the media

I want to close with two quotes: First, you can’t be what you can’t see (Marion Wright Edelman). If we are not using the media to challenge gender discrimination and gender norms that limit both men and women from exercising their rights and securing justice, then we are missing the opportunity to use the full power of the media, especially in the 21st century when its reach has expanded exponentially.

We have to use the media to question the assumption that sexual violence is an inevitable consequence of war. We have to use the media to question why are those who made war the ones who are invited to negotiate the peace, while those who have an interest in peace are prevented from having a voice. We can’t imagine gender justice without media and communications to help us see it.

And, finally, a Native American adage: She or he who tells the story rules the world. It is important and uplifting to see or hear media that show us dialogue across lines of conflict to advance gender justice. But it is not enough just to have a growing a number of good examples of social justice media. We have to work on transforming the media and democratizing ownership and leadership. Only then will stories that promote and protect gender justice regularly make it on to the nightly news.

Let’s work together to move from imagining media that promote gender justice to actually seeing it.

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