Columnists Features

Gender-specific barriers to freedom of expression

FREEDOM of expression is a women’s rights issue. Freedom of expression is directly linked to the broader concept of women’s rights. Women’s ability to enjoy their human rights is founded in their ability to express and/or communicate their opinions freely, to choose and live a lifestyle of their choice, to profile themselves the way they feel and make choices about their lives. Situations that infringe on freedom of expression for women directly infringe on women’s economic, social and cultural rights, as well as their civil and political rights. Such infringements deny women an opportunity to equally participate in socio-economic and socio-political events of their society, as well as opportunity to build themselves and advance their aspirations.
Freedom of expression is underpinned by freedom of information. Understanding the gender dynamics to freedom of expression requires a gender analysis of these factors.
i.Freedom of information and access to information:
This is generally problematic due to lack of legislation that guarantees access to information. This makes it difficult and in some cases dangerous for various players, especially women, to access important and useful information that is held by public entities.
Women are disproportionately affected by this gap due to various gender factors such as the fact that women are generally economically weaker than their male counterparts, women are deterred from getting information that is considered complicated or technical and women require much more safety and security measures.
Unfortunately, with lack of legislation, this is non-existent. This marginalisation skews the socio-political landscape to favour those who are more knowledgeable and those who have much more access to information than others – in this case – men.
ii. Freedom of the media/Freedom of the press:
Freedom of the press is essential to human rights, and encourages a healthy and sustainable social, political, and economic development. Freedom of the media fosters transparency and ensures an informed citizenry.
The current situation in Zambia smacks of infringements on freedom of the press as evidenced by, inter alia, threats/warnings and cautions to media practitioners, attacks and shut-downs of media houses – both major and small ones. When all media practitioners experience these setbacks, female practitioners experience it with a gender edge.
This is because of sexist feedback that attacks their person and undermine their dignity, sexual harassment which is highly prevalent and poorly addressed, demeaning actions such as being stripped naked, handled/touched the wrong way and demands for sexual favours.
iii.Access to platforms for self-expression:
Access to platforms for self-expression is also gendered. The major underlying factor is prevailing gender inequalities in the society. The reality remains that men enjoy more media coverage than women. Reports on the 2016 elections by Hivos and MISA Zambia confirmed this. Men are considered important sources of news; women are mostly objects in news. The socio-political and socio-economic landscape has more male players creating more opportunities for males as newsmakers. The other important challenge is that it seems that it’s more exciting news when women are in scandals than in positive stories.
The media mirrors what is prevalent in our society.
The social construct that men are more important than women has led to men enjoying more positive media coverage, while women feature in scandals and name-calling – more negative coverage.
This tends to discourage women from featuring in the public sphere. Additionally, there are less women holding influential positions in media houses. It would be critical that women are equally accorded the opportunity to work in the media, own and manage influential media houses.
In efforts to address this situation, several interventions can contribute. Panos Institute Southern Africa (PSAf) champions the agenda of creating spaces for women to get employment in the media under equal conditions.
Influencing gender parity in media houses should go beyond numbers, to getting numbers of women holding positions of influence. PSAf also works to demystify and de-stigmatise journalism and media work for women for several reasons.
With concerted efforts, the gender dynamics to freedom of expression will be addressed and liberate women for equal participation in socio-economic development.
Lilian Kiefer is the Executive Director of PSAf. For feedback, email:

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