On the 9th of August 2022, Kenyans went to the polls for general elections. And though Kenya has a history of electoral violence, these elections are momentous because, for the first time in Kenyan history, there is a possibility of a women deputy president!  

 The appointment of Martha Karua, a lawyer and former Minister of Justice and Constitutional Affairs, as the deputy presidential candidate is a big leap forward for Kenya. However, like many women politicians, how she is represented in the media contrasts with her male counterparts.  

In the spirit of Women’s Month, fraycollege hosted a #JournalismTalks Twitter space on August 11th called Reporting on Gender, which looked at reporting gender, with a specific focus on how women politicians are represented in the media, how gender is represented in the media, and how the media can improve its coverage when it comes to gender issues. 

 The Twitter Space was hosted by fraycollege CEO Paula Fray, who opened the discussion by pointing out that women should not be conflated with gender and that the gender spectrum is not male or female binary. Fray said the media has a bigger role than just simply “recognising broader coverage for different sexes,” adding that it has a responsibility of recognising a spectrum of gender roles, and sexual identities, and allow people to affirm themselves. 

 “It’s much more than simply focusing on pronouns, it’s about challenging an essentially patriarchal view of the world,” Fray said. 

 Fray was joined by long-term gender activist Kubi Rama, who heads Southern African gender organisation, Gender Links; Kathy Magrobi, founder of ‘Quote this Women+’, an intersectional feminist organisation and online database consisting of women experts and marginalised voices; and Rachel Ombaka, who is the Vice Chairperson of the Association of Media Women in Kenya. 

Ombaka, at the beginning of the Space discussion gave an overview regarding Karua’s bid for the deputy presidential chair, and how the media has covered her story. 

 Karua, who has been in politics for over thirty years, has constantly been referred to as the ‘Iron Lady’. According to the Kenyan media, the term was motivated by how the international media used to refer to current German Chancellor Angela Merkel.  

The term, iron lady was coined by a soviet journalist to describe the first British woman Prime Minister Margret Thatcher. The term is frequently used for women in government who are often deemed ruthless or relentless.  

Karua, in an interview with CNN, pointed out that she deemed the term misogynistic. 

Ombaka said it’s important that the Kenyan media are conscious of the language they use and continue to use when they describe women.  

“However, the coverage of Karua’s nomination as the deputy was phenomenal”, Ombaka said.  

“She [Karua] was on the front page of most newspapers and not on the side. If you look at how Kenya covers female politicians, you will find out that most of the time it’s a man who is in the centre of the page and the women will be tucked away in the corner somewhere.” 

But when Martha was announced, her face was the only one on the front page,” Ombaka said. 

Ombaka applauded how most newspapers covered Karua and centred her during her nomination, so much so that she herself (Ombaka) bought a physical newspaper to share the monumental moment in history with her very own daughter.  

“It’s very rare in this country to have a woman take up space on the front page, and not because of a sexual scandal, not because she has been caught in corrupt cases but because of an achievement, because the country seems to have come of age and accepted that women leadership is no longer a myth,” she said. 

Ombaka pointed out that the change of narrative when it comes to women politicians isn’t a phenomenon, adding that there was a lot of work put in by journalists in the background. 

“The Media Council of Kenya has been conducting a lot of training for journalists, regarding gender-sensitive reporting. The coverage of Martha just shows that when you put in the work the result begins to show,” she said. 

“A lot more women in government were featured this year than in 2013 and 2017 because the Media Council of Kenya ensured that the media is conscious of the impact and damage they cause when they exclude women in their narrative.”   

“When you cover women, you hold the power of whether it is normal or not normal. The more we see women holding the position of leadership, the more we normalise and break this bias that we have been socialised to think leadership is just a preserve of men,” Ombaka said. 

Why is it necessary to change coverage when it comes to gender? 

Rama entered the discussion by pointing out that the media should not be reflecting reality but questioning the power that is, adding that in this instance, men are the power that is.   

She made an example, by pointing out how the media will effortlessly question if a woman is qualified to be in a certain position but won’t pose the same question for men. 

“I think fundamentally, the media has to start covering the whole story,” she said, adding that when it comes to how politics is covered in the Southern Region, there’s stagnation or a backslide in terms of women’s representation.  

“In our last national election, the voices of women and ordinary citizens barely featured in the coverage of that election. This poses the question: ‘in whose interest are these stories we want to hear, because these elections are about us.” 

How can journalists think differently about gender? 

Gender Links tries to create real opportunities for engagement between journalists and women politicians so that there can be honest discussions around what and how women politicians feel about the coverage. 

Gender Links also creates spaces where journalists are trained and there’s an opportunity to talk through the key issues when discussing gender in the media and gender in politics.  

“For example, when South Africa goes to elections in 2024, if the president doesn’t concretely start talking about gender-based violence, that’s a problem and that should feature in everyone’s manifesto. Not because it’s a gender issue but because it’s a crisis and a priory for the country,” Rama said. 

Using women’s voices as experts when sourcing sources also changes how the media reports on gender.  

“Quote This Women+ is a database of 650+ women experts or otherwise marginalised experts that journalists can contact when they are looking for somebody to interview in the news in order to close their gender gap and who gets to make the news,” Kathy Magrobi said. 

The Space was concluded with practical advice on how the media can change the way gender is covered in the media. 

“There is a need for interrogation, not just without but within because we always focus on a lot of problems outside the newsroom, yet the media itself is facing problems such as sexual harassment, glass ceiling, and stagnation of women in media,” Ombaka said. 

“Our first practical example is to just ask journalists to work a lot harder in order to get women in their news and to know that it might take more effort,” Magrobi concluded. 

Listen to the full here episode.

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