Seen But Not Heard

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<b>A <i>rabble interview</i> with Ghanaian feminist, journalist and academic Audrey Gadzekpo</b>

Audrey Gadzekpo is not the type of African woman we normally see on television. She is not the victim of a “barbaric tradition.” She does not live in the depths of poverty. She is a well-educated feminist, journalist and lecturer in communications studies at the University of Ghana and she is in Canada this week, mid-way through a lecture tour that will take her across Ontario.

Gadzekpo is critical of Western media’s failure to present a balanced image of Africa and Africans — especially where Africa’s women are concerned. After all, she notes, African women — like women elsewhere — have very little control over what is being said about them in the media both in the West and in their own countries.

rabble interviewer — Meera Karunananthan — spoke with Gadzekpo before she left for Canada, about Ghanaian women and the media.

Meera Karunananthan: How would you describe the portrayal of African women in the Western media?

Audrey Gadzekpo: I think African women suffer the same image problems as the general continent of Africa does in terms of the manner in which Western media portrays them. They are almost always written about as disadvantaged and as victims of backward cultural practices and attitudes. I think that more coverage of those women who have been empowered would help Westerners understand the similarities between the condition of women in Africa and in their own societies.

Karunananthan: How does the Ghanaian media portray Ghanaian women? Do women’s issues get adequate coverage?

Gadzekpo: The media is still not mainstreaming women’s issues and not covering issues such as rape in ways that suggest they understand the underpinnings of such gender crimes. The older, state-owned papers and state-owned electronic media have created women’s spaces such as women’s pages and a couple of women’s programs. But there is no consistent attention being paid to issues of concern to women unless those issues are controversial or involve conflict, such as murder or rape. In those cases they tend to report only the crime and leave things at that.

In general, the private newspapers and radio stations are somewhat worse. Most of them do not have gendered spaces and do not cover women’s issues unless they can sensationalize the issue. However, the liberal media atmosphere in Ghana provides opportunities for alternatives to the kinds of media that exist. There is a women’s targeted radio station in Tema, near the capital Accra, for example, and also community radio stations such as Radio Ada, whose programming involves women and reflects concerns of women better.

Karunananthan: In 1995, you reported that the Ghanaian delegates at the United Nations Women’s Conference in Beijing were “sidetracked by Western preoccupation with female genital mutilation.” Their platform was much broader than what the rest of the world chose to highlight. What was the media’s role in what happened?

Gadzekpo: The female genital mutilation debate became the definitive African women’s issue at the conference, although for many of the African delegates, there were other less sensational and obvious issues such as women struggling to overcome poverty and women’s alarming dropout rates in education that needed to be addressed.

The Western media played a large role because they seized upon the issue, complete with graphic video footage, and crowded out the other equally important issues. Many did not understand or bother to discuss the complexity of trying to abolish age-old practices and the varied measures that had to be taken to succeed.

Karunananthan: Do women have equal access to careers in the media in Ghana?

Gadzekpo: Yes, in the sense that there is nothing barring women from entering media careers and there are women who are valued in media organizations. But here again women in the media complain that they face a “pink ceiling” and their numbers, particularly in the top hierarchy, would suggest that.

For various reasons media houses are unable to retain women. Typically, the male media managers claim it is because women get married, have children and are unable to devote the kind of hours needed to rise in the hierarchy.

I had a chat with a media manager recently, who told me how good and hardworking many of his female reporters were, but then said that because in the past he has lost good female reporters to “marriage” (many of them left the country with their new husbands), he was reluctant to promote one of his top reporters who happens to be a woman.

Women say that they are being sidelined and that sometimes their managers do not bother to give them those challenging assignments that will help their career. I think they are right.

Karunananthan: What needs to be done in the media, both African and Western, to empower African women?

Gadzekpo: I think that a more balanced, mainstreaming of women’s issues is important. A focus perhaps on empowered African women doing great and interesting things, alongside deprived, victimized women, will help. Also, it is important to have stories and features that are well backgrounded and more critical.

* * *

Gadzekpo herself has managed to break through what she calls the “pink ceiling” and describes her own experience as “quite positive.” On September 27, 2000, for example, when Ghana held its first presidential debate ever, she was a co-interviewer. It was televised on CNN as well as Ghana Television.

Her political views are sought both in Ghana and abroad.

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