Strengthening women's participation and representation in the media | #mediadev | DW | 23.05.2023
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Strengthening women's participation and representation in the media

How does gender play into the programming of local radios in Burkina Faso? An interview with media scholar Viviane Schönbächler

Interview with a woman in Burkina Faso

Interview with a woman in Burkina Faso

DW Akademie: Viviane Schönbächler, in your PhD research, you specifically looked at the role of female journalists in conflict resolution and transformation processes in Burkina Faso. What was your motivation? 

As a media and peace scholar, my motivation lies in understanding how we can build peaceful societies. Overcoming conflicts, building peace – these processes are all based on the complex relationships between people. Journalists have a unique position in society and can connect people and stabilize relationships. Especially local radio stations in smaller towns are important actors that engage communities.

Before starting my PhD, I worked in a media development project in Ouagadougou and developed workshops with local radio stations in conflict-sensitive journalism. Over time, I always asked myself the same question: Where are the women? In a workshop room, there were perhaps one or two women.

Did you get an answer in your research?

Some early studies from the late 1990s and early 2000s found that social stereotypes and traditional structures tell women not to speak up in public. A woman talking on the radio is often considered as going against the traditional role of women in society. In addition, female journalists have a much harder time earning a living that is sufficient to support their family. All this means that the professionalization of women journalists takes much longer and is a more difficult, complicated process.

How do women overcome these barriers?

I interviewed many female journalists in local radio stations in the provinces, outside of the big cities of Ouagadougou and Bobo-Dioulasso. In these conversations, two aspects came up frequently: passion for radio making and a support network. It may be your husband, fellow colleagues or even neighbors – people who support you not to give up. In small radio stations, female journalists are often isolated; many spoke about a lack of networking.

Dorf im Norden von Burkina Faso

Village in northern Burkina Faso, along the border with Mali and Niger.

What else affects these women's personal and professional lives?

Being a woman is only one part of your identity that has an impact on how you go through life and how society sees you. That is why I used an intersectional lens in my research. Intersectionality is often used to study the most marginalized groups in terms of power dynamics. But it can be much more. An intersectional approach is an interesting tool to examine the complexity of human experience. In my research, I looked at different factors that shape the experiences of women.

For instance, marital status is a key social factor in Burkina Faso. If you have children or not is another one. Or your age – the older a woman is, the more respected she is. And obviously, your economic situation. Many journalists use personal resources for their work. If you don't have a smartphone, you cannot engage with communities online which might hinder your journalistic progress.

Are women represented in media coverage?

Almost all radio stations have women's programs, They are important as they raise awareness about the situation of women. Unfortunately, however, these shows are the first to be cut if airtime is needed.

As part of my research, I analyzed radio shows. In my sample of around 150 hours of radio content, I found that women's voices make up only 12% of airtime, and less than 10% of all callers in interactive shows were women. There are different reasons why women are not participating. Some are afraid of the consequences, they worry about what their husband or social environment thinks. There are also financial reasons – some don't have a smartphone or use their phone credit for other calls.

What difference can female journalists make? 

They can use more subtle ways to engage women. Women are more likely to speak to female journalists in a conversation, for example at the market. They are more willing to voice their opinion if journalists call them rather than speaking on air. But female journalists also need to invest time and effort to reach female sources and gain their trust. They are crucial to bring women's voices onto the airwaves, even if it's indirectly. Women's concerns and perspectives need to be included in the mainstream programs.

What do you think is needed in both media research and development practice to achieve equal rights and opportunities for women?

When we look at the intersection of gender, media and peace, we are still very much at the beginning. But there is a lot of interesting research from the Global South, from India and Southern Africa, also from Latin America.

More research is needed on different ways of participating in the media, how to engage different groups, and how to strengthen new ways of engaging audiences besides those that privileged parts of society use. 

This brings me to media development practitioners. It may be difficult to integrate an intersectional approach into the full project cycle – from needs assessment to implementation and evaluation. But it is very important, especially if your aim is to improve the situation of less privileged people in society. It is all about offering a variety of tools for interaction and dialogue. The more diverse you are, the more likely you are to reach a bigger variety of people. And the goal must be that people can take active part in decisions that affect their lives.



Viviane Schönbächler is a postdoctoral researcher at the Department of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Hamburg, Germany. Her research interests include Feminist Media Studies, intersectional methodologies, media and conflict, and digital security.

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