Seeing African women in media

  Dr Yemisi Akinbobola argues that African women continuously demonstrate an impact and contribution towards peace and development on the continent. They are also invisible; and narratives about conflict in Africa are skewed towards a perspective that Africa and its people lack the agency to successfully silence the guns. She works to highlight these stories and make them visible.  

Dr Yemisi Akinbobola is the co-founder of African Women in Media, and a senior lecturer at Birmingham City University. She holds a PhD in Media and Cultural Studies, and has a research interest in Gender, Media and African Feminism(s). She is an award-winning journalist with experience in communications management roles for charities.

Their stories demonstrated to me the varying levels of impact and contribution African women continuously make towards peace and development on the continent. They also demonstrated how little we know of these stories, and the extent to which narratives about conflict in Africa are skewed towards a perspective that Africa and its people lack the agency to successfully silence the guns.

The stories of these heroines demonstrated varying levels of individual, community and collective strength, resilience and determination towards transformative change in their communities, in a way that both international and local media are yet to capture fully. And therefore, these women – the 20 featured in the book, and so many others – remain largely invisible in stories around peacebuilding and conflict resolution in Africa.

My first task as editorial consultant on She Stands for Peace: 20 Years, 20 Journeys was to find the women who had been nominated to be featured – and it was hard. They were not visible on all the usual platforms with which you would expect a researcher to start their research: Google, news websites and social media.

I recall the story of a woman in Libya, who had been so instrumental in claiming peace in her community through her bravery. Inspired by her story, I dug deep into my network, reaching out to local journalists, fixers and networks in the region, people with extensive sources and networks; and in the end, despite all our efforts, we were never able to find this woman so that she could tell her story. She therefore never made it into the book. Just consider for a moment how many such stories are dropped from publications and documentation because of this lack of visibility?

It is this kind of invisibility that my non-governmental organisation, African Women in Media (AWiM), sought to address with its aptly named Visibility Project: a project developed in partnership with Wikimedia Nigeria Foundation. The objectives of the Visibility Project are simple: to increase the number of African women visible on Wikipedia, and the number of African women who are Wikimedia editors.

Two young Sudanese women breaking gender stereotypes as small appliances mechanics in Khartoum, Sudan. (Photo from She Stands for Peace: 20 Years, 20 Journeys © SIHA Network.)

Prior to the launch of the Visibility Project in July 2019, the statistics for women representation on Wikipedia were not good – just 17% of Wikipedia profiles were those of women. In Nigeria, for example, only 2 000 Wikipedia profiles existed for Nigerian women. Across the three Wikimedia trainings and editathons that we did in 2020 under the Visibility Project, 300 women journalists were trained as Wikipedia editors, and 598 new profiles of African women were created.

The next time someone does a Google search about African women during Covid-19, African women in media, or African women and labour migration in Africa – among other topics we covered in the editathons – some of these women will surely come up!

The politics of visibility of women is important in the media discourse of the Women, Peace and Security Agenda (WPS) – both in terms of the representational voices of women survivors of conflict and for ensuring their perspectives are visible, but also in considering the role women in media can play in ensuring this visibility. However, in order for us to consider the role women in media might play in the WPS agenda, we must also consider how both the media and the state treat them. It is not just a
question of whether women journalists should be playing a more active role in the WPS agenda, considering the central role women play in peacebuilding as recognised by UNSCR 1325.

The fact is, women journalists are playing a role. We just need to be better at capturing their lived experiences, and the extent to which the environment is enabling for them or otherwise.

At the annual African Women in Media conference on 7 December 2020, multi-award-winning Sudanese journalist Amal Habbani pointed out that many women journalists covering peace and security in Sudan do so anonymously, and on poor pay – some earning as little as $20 a month. These women journalists also do not use their bylines, for fear of retribution – something that Amal is well aware of, having been detained by Sudanese authorities 15 times herself.

The African Union’s Agenda 2063 Aspiration 4 aspires to a “peaceful and secure Africa”. Recognising the central role women play in conflict prevention and mediation efforts in Africa, the AU established FemWise Africa (Network of African Women in Conflict Prevention and Mediation). Similarly, there is a commitment to change the narrative of Africa and build the Africa we want.

So when we speak of media in relation to peace and development, and ask if Africa is on the right track, I question the extent to which the narratives constructed in media – both on the continent and internationally – are truly making the invisible visible, as opposed to the repeated use of the same narratives and the same voices. When we speak of the role African women journalists should play in this, I question the extent to which gender biases and stereotyping in the workplace disempower women journalists from simply being able to do their jobs in the first place.

Recent research (2020) by AWiM and Fojo Media Institute, which surveyed 125 journalists across 17 African countries, found that the allocation of roles and resources in newsrooms is often gendered, thus impacting on the ability of African women journalists to report on topics such as politics. Additionally, I question the extent to which partisanship and ethnic divides in media ownership in some countries – and their impositions on press freedom – disempower journalists from being fully able to be active mediators of peace and development; the danger here being that when we are not objective or unbiased in our reporting, we unwittingly interfere with conflict resolution processes.

It is important that the media is able to successfully document, monitor and report on continental and national mechanisms put in place to promote peace, security, and development on the continent. And creating enabling environments for press freedom and for women journalists constitutes a reliable tool for monitoring how well African countries comply with the treaties they sign up to, and for monitoring their progress in achieving Aspiration 4, and also serves as a means to obtaining data that will support journalists in performing their functions. In this, therefore, the safety of journalists is paramount.

Lastly, I’d like to come back to the visibility of African women in peacebuilding and conflict resolution. Their stories matter – not just because they deserve the visibility, but because understanding the lived experiences of female victims and survivors of conflict can guide the expansion of campaigns geared towards the creation of enabling environments where gender-based violence can be prevented.

AWiM launched its niche news publication AWiMNews in 2020. AWiMNews produces news and analysis on ‘African women and media’; thus, it promotes African women’s voices and issues, and aims to increase media discourse on the issues of African women.

1 March 2021