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Women march together in celebration of International Women’s Day in Dhawa, a village in the Gorkha District of Nepal.
 Photo: Paul Jeffery/ACT Alliance

Millions of people on every continent lack a voice to address inequality. They are underrepresented or misrepresented in the media, have low levels of media literacy, have limited access to relevant information and knowledge, and are excluded from participation in decision-making processes. WACC helps them to speak up.

As a pioneer of the communication rights movement, since its foundation in 1968 WACC has been among the few global organizations working to advance the communication rights of marginalized communities around the world. Over the past 50 years, WACC has partnered with thousands of grassroots communities in their local contexts, while also advocating for systemic change in communication-related legislation and policy at the national, regional, and global levels.

When the economist and philosopher Amartya Sen was asked what was the most important thing that happened in the 20th century, he answered, “The rise of democracy”.1 However, he went on to say, “We must not identify democracy with majority rule. Democracy has complex demands, which certainly include voting and respect for election results, but it also requires the protection of liberties and freedoms, respect for legal entitlements, and the guaranteeing of free discussion and uncensored distribution of news and fair comment.”

WACC is uniquely placed to promote the concept and practice of communication rights in order to help advance democracy and social justice. This is because WACC has extensive networks of partners in countries around the world, particularly at the grassroots level, and because WACC is widely recognized as an organization with an unwavering commitment to supporting the rights of those who wish to make themselves heard.

WACC is needed because it takes a moral stance between those who have power and those who do not by raising questions of access to information and knowledge, and equitable and affordable access to communication platforms.

For WACC, taking a rights-based approach to communication means prioritizing improved levels of accessibility and affordability, so that the most marginalized and “least served” are empowered and inequalities reduced; it means enabling communities and vulnerable groups to participate in decision-making processes; and it means monitoring progress in realizing communication rights in order to hold governments and gatekeepers to account.

In this respect, the link between communication rights and sustainable development has never been clearer: traditional mass media, social media, and digital platforms can contribute to the creation of new public spaces for voices to challenge the social, economic and political structures that exclude people and communities.

Communication and sustainable development

Over many years, the relationship between communication and development has taken several forms, although the notion of communication and information poverty has not always been at the centre of this exchange. Since the inception of international development as a global project in the 1950s, development practitioners and researchers have highlighted the potential of communication in supporting development processes.2 This led to the emergence of varying practices within the field of communication for development, such as communication strategies for agricultural extension, technology transfer, behavioural change, and participatory communication.3

As a result, a plethora of names have emerged to describe the field, including communication for social change, development communication, development support communication, communication for development, participatory communication, media development, development media, social communication, and behavioural change communication.4

Historically, two main approaches have shaped the role of communication in development. On the one hand, there are approaches based on an understanding of communication as a linear process of information transmission that causes social change in terms of knowledge, attitudes and behaviours and that are typically connected to a view of development as modernization. The transmission approach generally tended to overlook issues related to communication and information poverty.

On the other hand, there are approaches that view communication as a complex process linked to culture and connected to global and local economic, political, and ideological structures. These approaches are conceptually linked to views of development as empowerment and challenge relationships of dependence. They tend to understand communication and information as rights and to address key communication and information poverty issues. 

Regional communication traditions have also shaped the field, with some regions of the world having a strong tradition in participatory dialogue-based communication and others having historically focused on media structures or on media content for development.

Today, there is growing consensus that communication-based development interventions should abide by principles such as inclusion, locally driven development, gender equality, community empowerment, participation, and respect for human rights. There is also increased recognition that all of the approaches to communication for development can contribute to processes of social change, depending on the local context, the issue at hand, and the appropriateness of tools used (mass media, community media, community dialogue, public art, etc.). In this sense, tackling communication and information poverty is increasingly at the centre of communication for development interventions.

The notion of communication as a cyclical or two-way process of exchange is also a defining feature of interventions that view communication as one of the building blocks of sustainable development. This understanding of communication reaffirms the notion that integrating communication and information issues into development is about more than simply providing people with information or access to communication technologies.

Communication and gender justice

WACC believes that communication and information issues have to be part of all efforts to advance gender equality and sustainable development. This is because gender norms and roles inform the ways in which different groups in society are represented in the media, have access to media platforms to make their voices heard, have access to information and knowledge, as well as the possibilities open to them to own and control the tools of communication.

Gender inequalities around the world are also reflected in the rampant misrepresentation and underrepresentation of women in media content, the many cultural and structural barriers that prevent women from participating in decision-making, and the prevalence of sexism within media organizations. These issues help to perpetuate gender inequality in broader aspects of the lived cultural, social, political and economic experience.5

Four targets in particular under Goal 5 of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) highlight the relationship between communication and information poverty and gender equality. The first is Target 5.1 End all forms of discrimination against all women and girls everywhere. As WACC’s own research has shown, women are under and misrepresented in media content, a form of discrimination that exacerbates, perpetuates, and normalizes other forms of discrimination against women and girls.

The second is Target 5.2 Eliminate all forms of violence against all women and girls in the public sphere, including trafficking and other types of exploitation. Many women and girls around the world face violence when exercising their right to freedom of expression. This is particularly the case for women journalists, many of whom face gender-based violence at work. Media portrayal of gender violence as normal or natural complicates efforts to end violence against girls and women.

The third is Target 5.5 Ensure women’s full and effective participation and equal opportunities for leadership at all levels of decision-making in political, economic and public life. The link to communication and information issues is self-evident as women need to have access to communication platforms and to relevant information in order to enjoy full and effective participation. Research by WACC’s partners on gender and electoral news reveals patterns of rampant sexism against women candidates at the same time as male candidates are accorded greater and more serious attention. Such media treatment adds to the difficulties that women face in their efforts to participate in politics equally with men. 

The fourth is Target 5.B Enhance the use of enabling technology, in particular information and communications technology, to promote the empowerment of women. One of the key manifestations of communication and information poverty is limited access to communication platforms and resources. An estimated 4.4 billion people – mostly poor, female, rural and living in developing countries – have no access to the Internet. According to the International Telecommunication Union, internet penetration rates are higher for men than for women in all regions of the world and the global Internet user gender gap grew from 11% in 2013 to 12% in 2016. A second key issue is rising cyber violence against women and girls, which discourages them from participating in online communities or working in jobs that require an online presence.

WACC fully supports Sustainable Development Goal 5, and it intends to work with government entities, international institutions, and civil society partners to:

Gain greater recognition for the fact that gender inequality has a negative impact on the way people access communication and information, which in turn limits people’s ability to improve their lives.

Support initiatives to enable and enhance women’s ability to participate in development processes, including access to media platforms where they can raise concerns about issues that affect their lives. Promote and strengthen networks of media professionals working for gender equality.

Integrate a gender perspective in communication training and media professional development courses.

Develop and promote media tools for gender sensitive reporting. 

Encourage and recognize the work of women in public communication.

Support media training of women to help enable their participation in the media sector as journalists, editors, and managers.

Strengthen media owned by women.

Promote freedom of expression for women, minority and marginalized groups.

Increase the visibility of women from minority and marginalized groups, rural women, women with disabilities, migrants, refugees, displaced women in the media

Increase the participation of women, minority and marginalized groups in content production.

Eliminate gender stereotypes and hate speech from public media, including content that normalizes violence against girls and women.

Expand and strengthen gender-specific media research and documentation. 

Promote the adoption and implementation of gender policies, ethics codes and guidelines at media house, industry and national levels, as relevant.

A rights-based view of communication

WACC and its partners are convinced that addressing communication and information poverty through development interventions needs to be done from a rights-based perspective. This is because, in addition to drawing on existing and widely accepted rights frameworks, a rights-based approach gives development practitioners a common lens through which to understand and address communication and information issues. 

The right to freedom of expression, enshrined in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights,6 is the starting point for taking a rights-based approach to communication and information. “[The UDHR] is regarded as a central pillar of democracy, protecting the right to call our rulers to account, vital to preventing censorship, an indispensable condition of effective and free media”.7

However, power among people in any given society both enables and limits access to information and communication, which may in some cases undermine freedom of expression. For example:

“A poor person seeking to highlight injustice in their lives and a powerful media mogul each have, before the law, precisely the same protection for their right to freely express their views. In practice, however, the former lacks a means to have her/his voice heard, while the latter can powerfully amplify her/his message and ensure it is widely heard.”8

WACC believes that the right to freedom of expression is best guaranteed when promoted alongside a number of other rights. This is particularly important in today’s context, when communication ecosystems are increasingly complex due to rapid technological change, different levels of access to platforms, multi-layered and often transnational media governance processes, growing dependence on digital technology, and the emergence of media as a key space to advance inclusion and social change.

Other rights that help build and maintain this kind of environment include “a right to participate in one’s own culture and language, to enjoy the benefits of science, to information, to education, to participation in governance, to privacy, to peaceful assembly, to the protection of one’s reputation” all of which are part of the International Bill of Rights.9 Other crucial elements include diversity of media content and ownership, press freedom, diverse and independent media, and democratic access to media.10

And last, but certainly not least in today’s digital age, there are vital questions to address around the need for strong legal standards for data protection and data security; privacy; and reliable and affordable connectivity via global net neutrality. In addition, the development of artificial intelligence (AI) raises what accessnow describes as “some of the most challenging issues of the 21st century for human rights, ethics, accountability, transparency, and innovation.”

WACC’s future

The world of communication has changed, is changing, will continue to change – and much more quickly than we can understand and absorb those changes. The medium changes and the medium, as Marshall McLuhan pointed out, affects our perception of the message and the messenger. Yet WACC’s message remains constant.What is that message?

It has to do with portraying and recognizing the intrinsic dignity and worth of all human beings no matter their background and belief.

It has to do with listening to marginalized voices on a basis of equality. It has to do with placing oneself in the shoes of the other person or, if they have no shoes, walking barefoot alongside them.

Above all, it has to do with communication rights.

Here is what WACC says in “Communication for All: Sharing WACC’s Principles”:

“Communication rights claim spaces and resources in the public sphere for everyone to be able to engage in transparent, informed and democratic debate. They claim unfettered access to the information and knowledge essential to democracy, empowerment, responsible citizenship and mutual accountability. They claim political, social and cultural environments that encourage the free exchange of a diversity of creative ideas, knowledge and cultural products. Finally, communication rights insist on the need to ensure a diversity of cultural identities that together enhance and enrich the common good.”

It’s not a bad definition! 



1. Amartya Sen. “Democracy as a Universal Value.” Journal of Democracy 10.3 (1999) 3-17.

2. Melkote, Srinivas R. 2000. “Reinventing Development Support Communications to Account for Power and Control in Development.” In Karin Gwinn Wilkins, ed. Redeveloping Communication for Social Change: Theory, Practice, and Power. Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers.

3. Colle, Royal D. (2008). “The Threads of Development Communication”. In Jan Servaes, ed. Communication for Development and Social Change. New Delhi & London: Sage Publications.

4. Quarry, Wendy & Ramirez, Ricardo (2009). Communication for Another Development: Listening Before Telling. London and New York: Zed Books Ltd.

5. See WhoMakestheNews and the Global Media Monitoring Project.

6. United Nations. 1948. Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Article 19: Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes the freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.

7. CRIS Campaign. 2005. Assessing Communication Rights: a Handbook. Communication Rights in the Information Society Campaign, p.22. 

8. Couldry, Nick and Clemencia Rodriguez (2015). “Chapter 13- Media and Communications”. Rethinking Society for the 21st Century: Report of the International Panel on Social Progress. https://www.ipsp.org/

9. The International Bill of Human Rights (Universal Declaration of Human Rights, International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights).

10. CRIS Campaign. 2005. Assessing Communication Rights: a Handbook. Communication Rights in the Information Society Campaign, pp. 21-24.


Sarah Macharia is a feminist political economist with a PhD. in Political Science from York University, Toronto, Canada. She represents WACC as interim General Secretary of the Global Alliance on Media and Gender (GAMAG), a worldwide network of media organisations, civil society groups and researchers working to advance gender equality in and through media and ICTs. She is the Programme Manager of WACC’s Communication and Gender Initiative and coordinator of its Global Media Monitoring Project (GMMP). She is the principal author of Who makes the news – The Global Media Monitoring Project 2010 and 2015 reports. Her other publications include “Gendered narratives: On peace, security and news media accountability to women” in Lippe & Ottosen (eds.) (2016), and “Gender in Economic Journalism” in Djerf-Pierre et al (2019 forthcoming).

Lorenzo Vargas is a communication for development specialist and researcher on citizens’ media. Lorenzo coordinates WACC’s Communication for Social Change programme, which supports community media and citizen journalism initiatives in Asia, Latin America, the Caribbean, the Pacific, and Africa. He is also a member of the ACT Alliance’s Development Policy and Practice Advisory Group. Lorenzo holds a Hons. BA in Development Studies from York University, an MA in Communication from McGill University. Prior to joining WACC, Lorenzo worked with the Mosaic Institute as a programme manager and strategic communication advisor.

Philip Lee is WACC General Secretary and Editor of its international journal Media Development. His publications include The Democratization of Communication (ed.) (1995), Requiem: Here’s Another Fine Mass You’ve Gotten Me Into (2001); Many Voices, One Vision: The Right to Communicate in Practice (ed.) (2004); Communicating Peace: Entertaining Angels Unawares (ed.) (2008); Global and Local Televangelism (ed. with Pradip N. Thomas) (2012) and Public Memory, Public Media, and the Politics of Justice (ed. with Pradip N. Thomas) (2012). In 2013, he was conferred Doctor of Divinity (Honoris Causa) by the Academy of Ecumenical Indian Theology and Church Administration in Chennai, India.


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