MWAZIPEZA SAKALA, Johannesburg
WHAT do you call a room full of media women from six African countries? Progress!
Media development has been identified as an essential tool in ensuring social progress and it is even more effective if it is gender aware.
Officially, gender is the term used to denote the state of being male or female but often it is perceived as a womanâ€™s issue; more specifically dealing with gender equality campaigning.
Last week, senior journalists and editors from several newspapers in Africa gathered in Johannesburg, South Africa, to commence a one-year Leadership and Media management programme to address the gender gap the news industry faces and its effect on editorial content.
About 41 participants from Botswana, Kenya, Tanzania, Malawi, Zambia and Zimbabwe are participating in the 2016 programme.
Women in News (WIN) have continued with an ambitious leadership strategy to support women employed by media houses from several African countries to get more females in leadership positions and promote coverage of womenâ€™s issues.
Traditionally, newspapers have acted as a platform through which communities can get detailed information on a variety of events, be it political, business, religious, social or developmental.
Commercially, the print media has been battered by radio and television because the latter covers wider areas and is relatively easier to access, but newspapers cannot be done away with.
Public opinions are often driven by the information shared through the media and it is not uncommon to see groups of people gathered around a newspaper, sharing their thoughts on news items that would have been announced in electronic media earlier but are now set before them in black and white.
Although circulation numbers worldwide may be falling, many newspaper readers still find time to sit and peruse through editorial content and many a time the education they get from publications helps make decisions that drive positive change.
Many a bar fight has been instigated by newspaper articles and so the language used, the sentiments shared and the sources of information play a very important role in shaping society.
In the midst of social media platforms such as Facebook and WhatsApp, and the growing television and radio channels, newspapers still form a relevant mode of information dissemination.
Increasingly donor agencies are partnering with newspapers to disseminate information around development issues such as climate is smart agriculture, sanitation, public funding accountability, harmful traditional practices, social justice, maternal health, family planning, and the list goes on.
It is a fact that women often bear the brunt of poverty as they struggle to make money, often denied access to equitable pay, face limited school opportunities, limited health services and generally are not in a position to influence decision-makers and that is where the female editorial leaders come in.
Women in newsrooms often face discrimination and intimidation based on some deeply ingrained cultural biases.
Male journalists are usually assigned to cover major political or news events while their female counterparts are given softer beats. Inevitably, this leads to an imbalance in the hierarchy of many media houses resulting in male dominance.
Issues around child care, verbal abuse, sexual harassment and equitable pay are often thrown out the window as â€œthe boysâ€ tend to be making decisions in, but mostly outside, the newsroom.
The WIN programme is aimed at aiding women raise professionalism across newsrooms to ensure that information dissemination is more gender balanced while equipping their participants with business skills that will help boost the news industry.
WIN is a four-year, multi-million Euro programme conducted by World Association of Newspaper and News Publishers (WAN-IFRA) in partnership with the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA) and the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
This year, there were senior journalists and editors from Tanzania, marking an expansion of the coverage of the programme.
Alison Meston, WAN-IFRA director for capacity building, said she has been impressed with the progress being recorded by participants in the course over the years and the impact it is having on the media industry.
â€œThis programme has introduced me to so many strong female leaders and listening to the exchange of stories has given me so many brilliant ideas,â€ she said during the introductory session.
Ms Meston pointed out that the programme offered an opportunity for female news editors and senior journalists to share knowledge around the newspaper industry as to the challenges faced and the systems that have worked.
The WIN programme addresses the gender imbalance in media, while mobilising the industry to collectively create an environment that supports conditions for women in media, and their organisations, to succeed.
WAN-IFRA represents a network of newspaper organisations representing more than 18,000 publications, 15,000 online sites and over 3,000 companies in more than 120 countries.
In the past four years, WIN has trained 120 women journalists from 40 media companies in Botswana, Namibia, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Malawi and South Africa.
Participants have benefitted from individual coaching, media management and leadership skills training, mentoring and networking opportunities to strengthen their skill-sets and help them overcome barriers to advancement in the workplace.
It is hoped that the women journalists will be able to influence the type of stories that are being covered as well as raising the voice of women professionals.
A true democracy should allow for the voice of all citizens to be heard and the media as societyâ€™s barometer should be in the driverâ€™s seat of making sure there is balance.
Even if women make up over 50 percent of most populations, they usually hold less than 10 percent of decision-making positions.
In newsrooms, this gender imbalance translates into most news coverage being biased against women.
More often than not, women only make headlines when they are victims of gender-based violence or are involved in a scandal.
Very rarely are women quoted as authorities on matters regarding economics, law enforcement, health or politics. It is more acceptable to see women either as pretty faces or giving an opinion on a â€œsoftâ€ topic.
Through the WIN programme, it is envisaged that the leadership and business skills being disseminated will lead to a more gender balanced editorial content and that women will be tapped as news sources and business partners.
MWAZIPEZA SAKALA, Johannesburg