Community media by and for women - a challenge to fulfill the promise

by Mavic Cabrera-Balleza, AMARC Women’s International Network and the International Women’s Tribune Centre (presented at the Our Media 6th International Conference (Sydney, Australia; April 9-13, 2007).

For more than three decades now, the global women’s movement has confronted two key issues in the media: the negative and stereotypical portrayal of women in the media and the lack of women’s representation and participation in decision-making positions within media organizations.

Community media, independent media, radical media, participatory media, media libres, peoples’ media, grassroots media, social movement media and all their different configurations are touted to be the utmost instrument that women can use to reclaim their rightful spaces within media systems and structures. However, research and anecdotal evidence point out to the fact that this is not entirely the case. The discrimination that women face within government and corporate media are sometimes also reproduced in community media. This panel discussion seeks to find out not only how gender inequalities in community media can be stopped but how to effectively use this type of media as a tool in promoting women’s decision-making roles and political participation.

While I am inclined not to delve into how mainstream media marginalizes women because there is already more than enough evidence to prove this, I cannot avoid citing two media monitoring initiatives that to me reveal very interesting findings. These two are the 2005 Global Media Monitoring Project (GMMP) coordinated by the World Association for Christian Communication and the “Mirror on the Media, Who Talk on Talk Shows” conducted by Gender Links and the Gender and Media Network in Southern Africa (GEMSA) in 2006. Both studies found out that of all the media, it is in radio where women and women’s issues are most underrepresented.

The GMMP which analyzed media content in 76 countries revealed that women and women’s issues make up only 17 percent of news subjects as opposed to 83 percent men as news subjects in radio broadcasts. The Mirror on the Media project which monitored 11 radio talk shows in four Southern African countries –Lesotho, Malawi, South Africa, and Zimbabwe states that “if radio talk shows are a barometer of citizenship, then women barely exist–as host, as guests or as callers. Most shows also don’t cover many of the topics that women would like to talk more about.”

The same project showed that women only make up 25 percent of all callers to radio talk shows in Lesotho, Malawi, South Africa, and Zimbabwe. As talk show guests, women made up only 36 percent and as hosts, women constituted only 32 percent. Meanwhile, on gender as a topic, only nine (9) percent of the talk shows focused specifically on gender-related concerns.

Why am I focusing on radio when the situation in all other forms of media is just as bad? It is because radio is said to be the women’s medium. It is accessible and affordable; it transcends literacy barrier; it is the medium that has the broadest reach in poor rural and urban areas where there is little media presence and media access.

Radio therefore is a potentially powerful tool in enabling women’s participation in decision-making on matters that impact to their communities, on matters that impact to their families and to them personally. Women’s participation in radio can potentially lead to their broader political participation.

Let’s look at the situation in community radio. In 2006, AMARC Asia-Pacific and Isis International-Manila conducted a survey of 23 community radio stations and production groups in Asia-Pacific to examine women’s programming and women’s participation in community radio.

The survey brought the good news that almost all of the community radio stations (21) have between one to five hours of weekly programs by and for women. These programs cover issues such as women’s rights, health care, violence against women, literacy, and success stories of women in society.

Now the disappointing news: women make up only 28% of leadership positions—however, this is still comparatively better than in mainstream media where women occupy only 3 to 5% of leadership positions, as reported by the International Federation of Journalists in 2001. In technical positions, women make up only 28% as well. Not surprisingly, there were considerably more women administrative staff and producers at 44% each. Evidently, women are also stereotyped within community radio. Women also lack access to decision-making in the community radio sector.

A study of how gender issues are played out in Indy Media Centers (IMC) conducted by Gabriele Hadl and Lisa Brooten using the various list serves and discussion spaces within the network showed similar patterns of gender-based domination.

Some of these are:

• Work is often distributed and valued along traditional lines of gender: e.g. technical work is mostly reserved for men, and is valued more highly than other forms of contributions, given priority in discussions, etc. (the tech-arrogance phenomenon);

• Meetings, though at their best well-facilitated and democratic, were noted to be often dominated by those who talk “long, loud[ly], first and often” . Tallies from meetings showed that even if more women were present at a meeting, men talked more.

• A rhetoric of harassment, a feature common in online communication, characterized by flaming, trolling and cyber-stalking was reported as a normal part of everyday life in certain IMC spaces, and even condoned in face-to-face situations.

• Lack of diversity, time and energy: Even if a collective is aware of gender issues, it may give addressing them a low priority. This is sometimes justified by the old Marxist “revolution first, justice later” argument. Also, the precarity of most IMCs, with a small group of volunteers battling rightists, spammers, tech problems, police surveillance, lack of funds and space, etc. exacerbates existing inequalities.

How to address discrimination against women in community media

Participants in IMC gender debates have suggested ways the issues can be tackled, which Hadl and Brooten summarized as follows:

• Acknowledging existing hierarchies: The inequalities in the wider culture do not of their own accord stop at the door of IMCs -- this is nothing to be ashamed of. Rather than trying to deny them, they should be seen as an opportunity for dissecting and moving beyond them;

• Creating a safe and welcoming environment, if possible from the get-go, as it is harder to change engrained structures later– e.g. inviting more women to join a long-established all-male collective or changing an aggressive communication culture to a less combative one;

• Improving meetings by providing attentive and fair facilitation, outreach and encouraging different kinds of communication modes. One example of this is the traditional practice in some African tribes where a baton is passed around
and whoever holds the baton gets the chance to speak;

• Rethinking the value certain kinds of work are assigned according to the gender traditionally associated with them.

In AMARC, we’re planning to conduct a comprehensive gender audit among our members to examine the nature and extent of women’s involvement in programming and management of community radio. At the same time, we also hope to come up with models of organizational structures that would best guarantee women’s meaningful participation in community radio. We will also identify areas for capacity building. The AMARC Asia-Pacific survey, for example, indicates that women want to be trained in technical areas of radio production. AMARC is committed to responding to this expressed need but we also want to underscore that in addressing the gender inequalities through training or capacity building, we will be training the men as well. Such training efforts will focus on sensitizing them on women’s issues and how and why such issues also impact on men; how men are also stereotyped like women; the gender-based power relations and the ways by which such power relations play out in the operations of community radio as well as in their programming. In addition, we hope to produce and distribute creative and visual tools such as a checklist for gender-sensitive programming, score cards that illustrate women’s participation in decision-making, and other visual indicators.

We do know that men in supposedly progressive sectors like community media are aware of gender inequalities and gender injustices. Why this awareness has not changed their everyday political practice—the way they conduct themselves and carry out their work is mind-boggling for most of us. Many attribute it to the socialization process we [women and men] undergo. Perhaps because we are just beginning to address this issue more concretely and more systematically, we are ready to accept the reasoning that not unlike the women, men are just as trapped in a patriarchal and hierarchical socialization process. But we also need to keep in mind that we need not go easy on our male comrades. We should demand the same if not greater responsibility for them to monitor their own behavior. At some point, we will have to say enough! The patriarchal and hierarchical socialization process is no longer an acceptable excuse. We are aware of the problem, we know what to do with the problem—all we have to do is operationalize the solution.

We also need to realize that women also need sensitizing. I don’t want to sound preachy –especially to sisters in the women’s movement and the community media sector but as community media practitioners, we have a greater responsibility to break the boundaries set by our socio-political and cultural contexts. If we are to equate community media and women’s media with women’s progress, we need to go out of our way and take extra effort so that community media will truly become an instrument that allows, encourages and empowers women to speak in their own authentic voice.


Global Media Monitoring Project. 2005. World Association for Christian Communications. London, UK. Retrieved from
on April 10, 2007.

Hadl, G and Brooten, S. 2007. Talking Gender at Indymedia. Gender and Hierarchy: A case study of the Independent Media Center Network.

Miglioretto, B. 2006. Asia –Pacific Women Demand Equal Access to Leadership in Community Radio. AMARC Asia–Pacific and Isis International-Manila.

Mirror on the Media, Who Talk on Talk Shows. 2006. Gender Links and the Gender and Media Network in Southern Africa. Retrieved from on April 10, 2007.

article originally published at .

The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey