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Small steps or high hopes? Will a few high profile African women change the reality for millions of others?

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Joyce Banda. Photo by Chatham House, London

The World Economic Forum today published the 2012 Global Gender Gap Report. The report quantifies what most of us already anecdotally know: that in most parts of the world, it sucks to be a woman.

While it is always dangerous to generalise, Africa fares badly both in the report – with the exception of Lesotho, South Africa, Mozambique and Burundi – and on other indices on women’s rights and gender equality. Yet, this year has seen African women make headlines largely for other, more positive reasons.

On 5 November, associate editor of Arise magazine, Hannah Pool wrote for the Guardian listing some of the achievements made by African women in 2012, including the election of Malawi’s first female president, Joyce Banda.

I am thrilled for these women and I am hopeful about their legacies but I am skeptical about what conclusions we can draw about the state of women and girls in Africa from the achievements of so few. It strikes me that where the rise to prominence of African women might have a more immediate impact is in the perception of African women in the western media. And Hannah alludes to this much at the end of her article: “There may be much more work to be done, but there are also many signs that the west should reconsider its image of what African power looks like.”

Reading Hannah’s piece illuminates for me the growing obsession with how Africa is perceived, over how Africa is actually performing. I understand it. For too long, the mainstream western media painted a picture of Africa that reflected none of it colour or diversity and little of its achievements and strengths. The tide is slowly turning but I see a risk in the pendulum swinging from one extreme (“Africa is Failing!”) to another (“Africa is Rising!”), neither side attempt to find a more nuanced truth.

So will a few high profile African women change the reality for millions of others? The simple answer is probably not. They need to all place gender equality on their agenda and follow through with strategies, matched by funding to implement them. I do not know if – beyond our assumption that women in power will care for women without any – there is any evidence of this.

On the media and African women, I wager that for every article on Banda, there will be others on landless female farmers. For ever headline Ellen Johnson-Sirlef makes, there’ll be at least one other that shows that the majority of girls on the continent still do not have equal access to education and resources. Rather than be fixated by how the media is telling the story of the few, African media observers, citizen journalists and traditional journalists should focus on how the media is telling the story of the many.


Written by Eliza

November 6, 2012 at 5:05 pm

Posted in media

Tagged with , , ,

One Response

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  1. Really good review. I feel that (in general) the media nowadays are reporting more for effect than for casting light on the reality of situations. It is far easier to write stories in order to deeply move people than it is to research and state facts without any bias. And so we’re increasingly seeing conclusions drawn which are way out of proportion of the reality. If this spurs people to take positive action then it may not be a bad thing in the short term, but the media risk desensitizing the public. And as you rightly say, the focus should be on the story of the many, in plain and simple terms with no bias.


    November 9, 2012 at 11:39 pm

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