International Women’s Day: Equality, empowerment, and free expression

Friday, March 7, 2014
Women celebrating International Women’s Day in Liberia on 08 March, 2011. PHOTO: UN Photo/Staton Winter
By Francine Navarro Since 1913, March 8 has been a designated day to celebrate and show solidarity for efforts to advance the rights of women around the world. For International Women’s Day this year, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon reminds the international community to heed a simple, but necessary, truth: “equality for women means progress for all.” Equality is a driving force for positive social change. It encompasses the principles of inclusion, participation, access, protection, and choice – the most vital tenets of a developed democracy. When pursued in tandem with fundamental human rights, gender equality can become a source of empowerment for society’s most marginalized individuals. This is the foundational idea behind the first Global Forum on Media and Gender. From December 2-4, 2013, hundreds of participants representing various levels of society convened in Bangkok, Thailand, with the aim of connecting and mobilizing efforts to achieve gender equality in media systems, structures, and content. Proceeding from the insight that women’s ability to access all modes of expression and participate in decision-making processes are “fundamental to a free, diverse, plural and democratic media system,” the Forum developed a Framework and Plan of Action that introduced gender-sensitive approaches of promoting free expression to discussions about sustainable development. To celebrate International Women’s Day this year, CJFE is highlighting three organizations in Liberia, India, and Fiji that challenge gender imbalances by providing female journalists with the means to exercise their right to free expression. Liberian Women Democracy Radio Since its launch in August 2010, Liberian Women Democracy Radio (LWDR FM 91.1) has been working to give life and meaning to its slogan, “Advancing Women, Promoting Change.” Entirely owned by women, the radio station heightens the visibility of women’s issues through its repertoire of gender-sensitive news programs, public service announcements, dramas, music, and call-in talk shows. The topics covered are as varied as the station’s programming: issues such as poverty reduction, cultural rituals, transportation, labour, and everything in between are all explored with the aim of promoting gender equality in Liberia. Operating in a country where, in 2009, 60 percent of women aged 15-49 were illiterate and 42 percent of women had never attended school, the station provides important services that address both the shortage of female reporters in Liberia and the exclusion of women from public affairs. Through training programs, volunteer placements, and employment opportunities, LWDR’s studio has become a place for prospective female journalists to hone their skills and gain professional experience in radio broadcasting. The station also gives its listeners valuable opportunities to voice their concerns on the air and, in some cases, affect change in their communities. Learn how a group of women got the attention of Liberia’s Constitution Review Committee after calling in to one of LWDR’s radio programs. Khabar Lahariya Newspaper The women behind Khabar Lahariya (“new waves”) were newly literate members of India’s lower castes who envisioned a local language newspaper that redressed the absence of information about the life and livelihoods of India’s rural population and its women and girls. Printed in five rural dialects – Bundeli, Bhojpuri, Awadhi, Hindustani, and Bajjika – the weekly newspaper is produced by a collective of female reporters, many of whom have minimal or no formal education or experience in journalism. All editorial duties and decisions, from reporting and copy writing to photography and layout design, are carried out by Khabar Lahariya’s entirely female staff. The work of these 40 journalists from rural communities in North India is now read by an estimated 80,000 readers, which include the marginalized groups and individuals who are underrepresented in the country’s mainstream media. With the launch of its website in February 2013, all linguistic editions – including an English translation – of Khabar Lahariya are now accessible to Internet users outside of North India. Since the first edition was printed in 2002, Khabar Lahariya has grown significantly in scope, readership, and influence. While still focusing largely on rural and women’s issues, the publication also features reports about national affairs, world news, development issues, and electoral politics. As its audience expanded to include both male and female readers, public officials, and professional journalists, the newspaper earned its reputation as a credible and valuable source of investigative journalism into corruption in isolated communities. FemLINKPacific Based on the Pacific island of Fiji, this community media organization was established in the aftermath of Fiji’s political crisis in 2000. Initially founded to give women a peaceful means of expressing their grievances in public, the organization continues to develop grassroots media to promote justice, democracy, non-violence, and empowerment. In keeping with its name, FemLINKPacific also builds local, national, and regional networks committed to advancing women’s rights from the ground up. The Generation Next Project encapsulates the community-minded principles that guide the organization’s work. Created to support FemLINKPacific’s mobile radio station, “FemTALK 89FM,” the project cultivates the production and broadcasting skills of a core group of young women and builds their knowledge about running a community radio station. FemLINKPacific provides ongoing support to Generation Next participants, many of whom have gone on to assume leadership positions within the organization. In February 2014, the NGO Committee on the Status of Women, NY honoured FemLINKPacific’s Executive Director, Sharon Bhagwan Rolls, with the Woman of Distinction Award. Asserting that “many women still are unable to claim their right to communication,” Bhagwan Rolls says the organization will continue to combat gender imbalances from all directions: “This is not just about accessing the most appropriate or accessible technology but also the need to challenge and transform the spaces of communication.”

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Francine Navarro is a Research and Publications Assistant at CJFE.

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