By Mégane Ghorbani
Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), located in Central Africa, is a member of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) and the most populous officially Francophone country, with over 77 million inhabitants, of which 50.15% are women. The ongoing conflict in Eastern DRC between armed groups and militias has resulted in over five million deaths over the last twenty years. In this context, “Tens of thousands of women, girls, men, and boys have been raped and otherwise sexually abused,” says recent Human Rights Watch reportDemocratic Republic of Congo: Ending Impunity for Sexual Violence. Recently, the government also used violence to repress demonstrations against the modifications to the electoral law that would permit President Joseph Kabila to stay in office beyond his mandated two-term limit, resulting in 42 deaths. Following this, the government imposed an Internet blackout throughout the country for three days and Internet connectivity remains unstable in most parts of the country.
The latest Gender Inequality Index ranks DRC as 147th out of 152 countries, showing that it is one of the worst performing countries in terms of women’s and girls’ rights. In terms of media, radio, including community radio, is the most popular form of media in the country, and used extensively in the provinces, unlike television, which is more expensive, and used more in large cities. It is however not always equally accessible to women and men and often perpetuates sexist stereotypes.
Women under-represented in the public sphere
According to Anna Mayimona Ngemba one of the main challenges in DRC is the lack of recognition for women’s rights to exercise of power, and many still believe women belong in the private sphere only. At 5.6% of women at Senate, DRC has one of the lowest levels of women in political decision-making. In the media, UCOFEM’s monitoring of media companies in 2013 shows that 28% of media employees, all services combined, were women, but Mayimona Ngemba says “departments that suffer most are the technical and editing departments where women are seldom found, but there is a growing awareness of this issue.” In print media, only 19% of journalists are women. This affects what is covered in the media and how it is covered. Negative or stereotypical messages are often perpetuated through the media, Mayimona Ngemba illustrates this with recent examples, “Last year we went to Western Kasai province where the weight of customs is still very strong. We found people using media such as radio, to promote messages against women’s rights and saying for example that, ‘Men should not accept that their wives get involved in politics, because when they are in politics, they become worldly,’ and in a radio program talking about the difficulties in accessing drinking water for people in Northern Kivu, coverage reduced women to ‘eternal victim,’ with Northern Kivu MP speaking on the issue rather than the affected women.’
Moreover, in a country where the freedom of press is not respected—with 142 journalists arrested, beaten or threatened by authorities between 2013 and 2014—the threats for women journalists are further exacerbated by sexual harassment in the workplace. Mayimona Ngemba explains, “A colleague told me that many women in the media are about to leave the field because they face sexual harassment. This year, we will include this issue in our action plan to challenge the media executives who are often perpetrators of this harassment. Sometimes even information sources are the ones causing harassment because there is a relation of power due to their high position in the society.”
Initiatives to address women’s often un- or misrepresentation in and through media
According to UCOFEM’s media monitoring, in September 2013, only 27% of sources and voices on TV were women, 22% on radio and only 16% in print media. In addition to low representation in the media, qualitative monitoring through case studies show three main ways that sexist stereotypes are perpetuated through the media. Firstly, women are represented as sexual objects, as victims, as “servants” or ordinary persons whereas men are represented as leaders, powerful and extraordinary persons. Secondly, women and men are represented in their “traditional roles”, meaning private sphere for women and public sphere for men. Thirdly the media often sensationalises issues, such as violence, to get more readers reinforcing existing stereotypes.
Mayimona Ngemba emphasises that it’s not merely important to cover women’s issues in the media, but to do so in a way that advances rights rather than perpetuating discrimination. She says, “There are more and more media outlets that have programming on women. But when you look at the content, although the conversation is about women’s rights, it sometimes opens the door or lends support to reinforcing certain stereotypes. There are, for example, shows on women’s affairs, where women’s roles are limited to family and reproduction. So it keeps women in these socially accepted roles instead of also showing examples of successful women in politics, business or other areas. In terms of sexual violence, training has been conducted in the media to ensure that victims are not further victimized, but rather give them voice. But in the rural areas there is still much to do because media outlets that have not yet been reached by awareness campaigns tend to trivialize sexual violence. The results of our study help us to take action and to push these outlets forward. There are some outlets that, after seeing the results, have made commitments to tangible diversity of voices.”
UCOFEM has been working address some of these challenges, by encouraging women to become active participants in spreading information rather than being merely passive recipients. Mayimona Ngemba explains an initiative they undertook with women market vendors—many of whom leave home very early and return in the evening, and given their household and caring roles, have limited time to follow television or radio programmes. When partners set up radio stations to broadcast specifically in the markets, UCOFEM argued that women should also have the opportunity to give their opinion. The women participated in panel discussions on governance issues, challenging the myth that market vendors cannot give their opinion. She says, “These shows were transmitted on radios in their community and those who followed these emissions were amazed by the women. The latter were also highly valued, which has strengthened their self-esteem. So the idea is to show that there are tools available that can be used by any woman, not just those with high levels of formal education—but all women have an opinion to share. They just need to be given the opportunity.”
But, the media continue to use old justifications for the dearth of women sources. Mayimona Ngemba talked about the training UCOFEM does to advance women’s rights and gender equality, “We went to the field to increase awareness among journalists and speak to them about the role that the media has to play in improving the image of women in Congolese society. In these conversations with reporters, they said ‘You ask us to talk to women, but you know very well that women do not like to speak.’”
No more excuses — resources and training
To counter this, in 2013, UCOFEM developed a directory of resource-women, a useful directory available to journalists, of resource women in different areas of DRC, including their contact information, so they have no excuse for the lack of women sources. Mayimona Ngemba adds, “This directory will be a valuable resource to women’s associations as well, so that women leaders stand together and raise awareness about the negative perceptions women face in the media. UCOFEM would like to involve other women’s organizations in raising awareness among women about their right to freedom of expression.”
In addition UCOFEM conducts training for journalists, men and women, on gender issues, advising them how to cover issues in a way that respects rights to freedom of expression, social justice and citizenship, while also conducting advocacy with media leaders so that they become involved in changing the image of women in their media houses.
 UCOFEM is part of the Réseau des Femmes des Médias des Grands Lacs (Great Lakes Network of Women in Media), member of Gender Links and the focal point in the DRC for theSADC Protocol on Gender and Development.