Tanzania journalists campaign against anti-women traditions

Journalists from Mozambique, Liberia, Guinea, Zambia and Kenya participate during a media workshop on ‘Sexual Reproductive Health and Rights’ (SRHR), whose theme was ‘Enhancing Media Coverage on Reporting SRHR in the Rwandan capital Kigali last week. PHOTO|HELLEN NACHILONGO

By Hellen Nachilongo

Kigali. Journalists from Tanzania and across the African continent are pushing for greater policy accountability of their governments in protecting women and girls from any and all harmful cultural practices. Indeed, some of the practices are known to have resulted in permanent injury or worse – including death!

Ms Hawa Bihoga, a Dar es Salaam-based journalist, believes that several policies and related regulatory frameworks – including the ‘Mother of all Laws,’ national constitutions – have been firmly put in place with the primary aim of uplifting women and girls in African countries. But many of them are not readily enforceable, or simply remain unenforced for one reason or another.

Ms Bihoga was speaking in the Rwanda capital Kigali where she had joined 34 other journalists from Mozambique, Liberia, Guinea, Zambia and Kenya. This was during a media workshop on ‘Sexual Reproductive Health and Rights’ (SRHR), whose theme was ‘Enhancing Media Coverage on Reporting SRHR.’

To that end, stakeholders are seeking stronger collaboration with African journalists for a re-invigorated media approach on reporting SRHR, with the targeted focus being on saving the lives of women and girls.

“Currently, FGM (female genital mutilation), early (child) marriages and maternal deaths are still a formidable challenge in Tanzania and many other African countries. This is largely because of laws that, for all practical purposes, undermine women and girls,” Ms Bihoga said – to much applause from the audience.

This was during a workshop which was organised by the African Women’s Development and Communication Network (Femnet).

By working with and through journalists, advocates of women’s rights want to use media platforms more strongly in their noble endeavors to hold governments accountable in promoting, strengthening and otherwise improving the Sexual Reproductive Health and Rights programme (SRHR).

Issues raised during the workshop principally aimed at calling for greater accountability from African governments in committing themselves to eradicating all forms of gender violence. These include – but are not by any means limited to – Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), rape, defilement, early or child marriages, ‘widow inheritance’ and rites of passage.

For the uninitiated here, ‘widow inheritance’ – also known as ‘bride inheritance’ – is a cultural and social practice whereby a widow is required to marry a male relative of her late husband, often his brother. Examples of widow inheritance can be found in ancient and biblical times in the form of ‘levirate marriage.’

On the other hand, a rite of passage’ is a ceremony or event marking an important stage in someone’s life – especially birth, the transition from childhood to adulthood, marriage, and death.

A Zambian journalist who writes on women’s rights Ms Sally Chiwama, told the workshop it is a shame that, despite several policies and legal frameworks that have been put in place in Africa, there is still a lack of access to sexual and reproductive health, as well as rights among the most vulnerable women and girls in society.

More challenging still is the fact that governments have not fully taken into account what the mass media fraternity brings to light.

“It is terrible that, for many, many years – and despite all that we cover as journalists on its impact on women and girls – many of our governments are yet to be fully accountable,” Ms Chiwama lamented.

According to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), between 100 and 140 million women and girls have undergone FGM in 28 countries in Africa, and in immigrant communities in Europe, Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the United States. [/www.unfpa.org/news/stopping-practice-endangers-women-and-girls-global-technical-consultation-fgmc>].

And, approximately 3-to-4 million women and girls are at risk of the procedure annually in Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Somalia and Ethiopia.

The UNFPA report further shows that there are over 800 women who die each day from complications in pregnancy and childbirth in Africa – and many of which could easily be prevented by the provision of adequate and timely healthcare and reproductive health services.

Africa clearly carries the biggest burden of the debilitating practice, reports indicate.

Liberian journalist Gloria Tamba said it was strange that women and girls still die of preventable causes while governments sit on their hands and simply watch the goings-on. As journalists, we must strategize on how we can focus on better reporting on these issues – but always doing so with the specific intention of making a difference.”

According to reports by different analysts, the continued practice of FGM in Tanzania has been highlighted as an area of much concern in human rights treaties to which the country is a signatory.

The harmful practice is still common in some local communities, and remains to be of great concern as it is increasingly being practised on girl-children under the age of one year!

One-in-ten women in Tanzania aged between 15 and 49 years has undergone FGM – whereby about 35 per cent of them underwent FGM before they completed one year of age.

The highest prevalence of this abomination is in the Administrative Regions of Manyara (58 per cent), Dodoma (47 per cent) and Arusha, at 41 per cent.

Again, FGM prevalence is twice as high in rural parts of the country (13 per cent) than in urban centres (five per cent).

June 2018 global data from UNFPA show that population growth is jeopardizing the little progress that had already been made so far, as the real number of girls at risk is growing with the passage of time.

Overall, the observed reduction in the FGM incidence is not enough to offset the projected population growth. As already noted herein above, one-in-ten women in Tanzania aged between 15 and 49 years has undergone female genital mutilation.

A Kenyan journalist who doubles as the executive director of the Association of Media Women in Kenya (AMWIK), Ms Marceline Nyambala, took the opportunity of the workshop to press for stronger solidarity amongst African women in the mass media industry to ensure that issues which impact women and girls get prominence in media platforms.

“We have seen the devastation in terms of numbers. We have unpacked the gaps in terms of delivery and service for SRHR. Now, it is time for us to consolidate all our efforts to ensure that governments deliver on their commitments – and that our women and girls are safe,” she thundered.

In addition to these threats to the lives of women and girls, there is also increasing sexual violence in several African countries, sometimes resulting in femicide, defined as “the killing of a woman or girl, in particular by a man and on account of her gender.”

Kenya, for example, is currently undergoing a ‘femicide crisis,’ what with an estimated forty femicides committed this year alone. This is in addition to the more than 4,000 reported cases of rape and other forms of sexual assault.

Ms Nyambala noted that online violence against females, and ‘fake news,’ were becoming a global issue mainly on the back of the publicity accorded to them by social media. This is perhaps the only way we are left with to ensure that African governments formulate cybercrime laws – and strictly enforce them.

According to the Kenyan scribe, at least three studies on online violence, violence against women and digital security were conducted in Kenya in recent years.

“A general study on women discovered that most visible, powerful and prominent women are victims of online attacks,” Ms Nyambala said – adding that most of the women who faced such attacks did not know how to handle the online violence; instead, they just went offline for a while.

“We conducted another research on female journalists, and established that 75 per cent of women journalists faced violence, with most of the online violence taking place on Twitter, Whatsapp, Instagram and Facebook.”

She also noted that female journalists in South Sudan also experience similar attacks as a matter of course.

The Femnet executive director, Ms. Memory Kachambwa, told the workshop participants that, as journalists in Africa, they need to be more vigilant – and also ensure that governments do not renege on their pledges to protect Africa’s women and girls. The governments must, instead, deliver on the commitments enshrined in crucial policy and regulatory frameworks.

“Countries have put good policies in place. But their implementation is next-to-zero – and this is where African governments must do more. It is not enough to merely put commitments on paper; real action on the ground is needed” she said.

Africa is home to 15 of the 20 countries which have the highest rate of child marriages in the world. It is estimated that 37,000 girls under the age of 18 years enter into forced marriage every day – a practice which effectively restricts girls’ education, minimizes economic opportunities and perpetuates cycles of poverty and violence.

It is estimated that, if left to continue unabated, the number of child marriages in Africa will rise from 125 million to 310 million by 2050, growing in tandem with growth of the population.

The journalists at the workshop collectively recommended increased coverage of gender and sexuality news in African media. In fact, they should call for more airtime and editorial decisions that will result in such topics getting more coverage.

They also committed themselves to according the issues more focus, visibility and prominence in their reporting at all times.

Femnet executive board member Charity Binka challenged African governments to rise as one and in strength to protect women and girls in their respective countries. They must also provide them with functional sexual and reproductive healthcare.

“Every woman who dies from gender-based violence, from child birth, from harmful traditional practices is one death too many. Every life counts,” chorused the workshop participants in unison.