In 1994, together with Isis International (Manila) and the Women’s Tribune Centre (New York), WACC co-organized a conference titled “Women Empowering Communication”. It took place 12-17 February in Bangkok, Thailand, at Sukhothai Thammathirat Open University.
The conference title was deliberately chosen to reflect both how women empower communication and to call for communication that empowers women. In her keynote presentation, social scientist Dr Noeleen Heyzer, who later served as Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations, said:
“We have come to understand that the women-media relationship can only be analysed, and successful strategies for changing it can only be developed, if we take account of the entire cultural, political, and ideological spectrum and study the economic context in which this particular relationship (between women and the media) is created and takes shape.”
Heyzer went on to identify two kinds of absence in media content that affect understandings of the world and women’s place in it. One is the entire “blanking out” of vast areas of experience and life that never find their way into mainstream media output – stories of poor rural or urban women, of women who face “everyday” problems, and information that would help to empower women.
The second absence was the unasked question, the unexplored line of investigation, the unchallenged assumption. The way in which an issue is tackled – how it is researched, which aspects are singled out, which people are consulted as experts, what questions are asked, how they are framed – largely determines public perception and understanding. As the Bangkok Declaration that came out of the conference stated:
“It is essential to promote forms of communication that not only challenge the patriarchal nature of media but strive to decentralise and democratise them: to create media that encourage dialogue and debate; media that advance women and people’s creativity; media that reaffirm women’s wisdom and knowledge, and that make people into subjects rather than objects or targets of communication. Media which are responsive to people’s needs.”
To help achieve this aim, and with official recognition by the United Nations in Section J of its 1995 Beijing Platform for Action of the need to promote a balanced and non-stereotyped portrayal of women in the media, WACC’s Global Media Monitoring Project (GMMP) was born. Its aims were:
Five GMMPs have taken place so far, in 1995, 2000, 2005, 2010 and 2015. Participation increased from 71 countries in 1995 to 114 countries in 2015, evidencing a growing willingness to engage with issues of gender in the media and a commitment to promote media that affirm women’s rights and gender equality. The sixth GMMP is taking place in 2020.
The series of GMMPs has revealed extremely slow progress in bringing women’s voices to bear in public discourse as reflected in the news media. Not only does the news present a male-centric view of the world, it is also marked by gender bias and extensive stereotyping that serve to reinforce marginalisation, discrimination and violence against girls and women. The GMMP that took place in 2015 identified persistent and emerging gaps in gender portrayal and representation not only in traditional (print and broadcast) media, but also in new digital media forms.
As Anna Turley, a former coordinator of the GMMP, points out in her article in this issue:
“Just as digital platforms and internet technologies were key to the development of transnational feminist organizing in the run up to the 4th UN World Conference on Women, without doubt they must continue to play a key role in shaping our collective feminist organizing in response to the current systemic crisis in 2020 and beyond.”
Over the years, a great deal of positive work has taken place and many media entities and outlets have altered their practices. So the story is not all doom and gloom. And yet there are still unasked questions, unchallenged assumptions, and a degree of misogyny that has no place in any society that truly believes in universal principles of human rights. We still have a long way to go.