“Women are never the right age. We are too young, we’re too old. We are too thin, we’re too fat. We wear too much make-up, we don’t wear enough. We’re too flashy in our dress, we don’t take care enough. There isn’t a thing that we can do right”.Dawn Primarolo (British MP)
By: Nyasha McBride Mpani
The news media produces the lens through which the political world can be understood, shaping the parameters and narratives within which actors and events can be framed and discussed working to produce our discursive ‘knowledge’ of politics. The media: both traditional and modern works to construct a limited number of rigid discursive categories that subsequently determine how women Parliamentarians or politicians can be understood by the public. When woman Parliamentarians or politicians do not comply with the available gender categories or gender order, the ensuing ‘gender anxiety’ creates and legitimizes a modernized media version of the medieval witch hunt, which aims to expose and exclude these women from the dominant gender discourse in order to protect its norms.
Previously, discourses on representations of gender in the media explored the ways in which woman politicians were rendered ‘invisible’ in media coverage, rarely receiving attention proportional to their male counterparts. This emphasis on a lack of coverage has since shifted onto the ways in which the coverage of male and female MPs is substantively different. South Africa’s blueprint for socio-economic transformation, the National Development Plan (NDP), stresses women’s peace and security and affirms gender equality as a permanent feature across all the spheres of the South African Government. Furthermore, the Constitution of South Africa provides for gender equality and thus the media has a role to play in promoting such.
Women Representation in South African Parliament, Local Government and National Government
Section 9 of the country’s constitution stresses gender equality amongst the values and principles of South Africa. This value should be seen as being reflected in the way female Parliamentarians and politicians are portrayed and given coverage in the media in particular, state media. According to statistics released by the International Parliamentary Union, the South African Parliament is ranked 10th in the world with women representation at 41.8% and 35.3% in the National Assembly and the National Council of Provinces respectively. For women in NCOP there has been a decline from 41% in 2009 to 36% in 2019 a clear indication that there is need for significant increases moving forward. For Women as Premiers, there has been a decline from 2004 and 2009, with the last two elections remaining stagnant on 22%. These figures also speak of an urgent need/action to achieve the 50% mark. On women as news sources, the last four elections have indicated the lowest proportion of female sources with the 2019 elections having the lowest figure of 20% (see Table 1).
The figures indicated in the table above clearly show that in some areas there has been an improvement in the last four elections, however, more needs to be done to attain equality both within Parliament and in politics as South Africa is still shy of the SADC Gender Protocol target of 50%. It should be noted that South Africa in 2008 united with other SADC Heads of State in adopting the Gender and Development Protocol. This protocol meant South Africa will commit to time-bound targets which are meant to spearhead the development and attainment of women’s socio-economic rights, which consist of attainment of 50% women’s representation in all leadership positions. Furthermore in 2015, South Africa joined the world in adopting the Sustainable Development Goals, which meant taking up a new agenda for 2030 which seeks to push for women’s full and effective participation in leadership. Against this background the media has an important role to play in ensuring women fully and effectively participate and access equal opportunities for leadership at all levels of decision-making in political, economic, and public life. Media has a key and meaningful role to play for the attainment of this Constitutional right. This can be done through producing gender sensitive and gender transformative content and breaking gender stereotype. It is the role of the media to challenge traditional social and cultural norms and attitudes regarding perceptions both in content and in the media houses.
South Africa Multi-Party Women’s Caucus
The South African National legislature, Local Government Councils and other nine Provincial Legislatures do have a multi-party women’s caucus. This caucus consists of all women members of the national assembly, local government, provincial legislatures, and women permanent delegates of the National Council of Provinces. The Caucus is directed by a steering committee consisting of the Chairperson and other selected members elected by the caucus.
It acts as an advisory, influencing and consultative body by:
representing the interests and concerns of women members of Parliament
promoting the discussion of women issues in Parliament
making submissions to the portfolio committee charged with oversight of women’s issues, either at request of the committee or at its own initiative
introducing a women’s perspective and focus on parliamentary activities, including the programming debate
engaging on developmental and empowerment issues with women in political structures outside Parliament and women members of parliament internationally
considering any other matter within its mandate referred to it by either House
The aim of establishing a Women’s Parliamentary Caucus is for women parliamentarians to rise above party politics and address issues of common concern as women. Some of these issues include deliberating on issues to do with the reduction of social, cultural and religious practices that are harmful to women. The operations of the Caucus are guided by the country’s constitution which provides for, among other things, membership and management of the Caucus.
Media Monitoring Africa Survey on Media Representation of Women in Politics
In South Africa the Media Monitoring Africa is the only organization to have monitored media coverage of South Africa’s elections since 1994. The organization has over the years monitored media coverage of elections and the just ended Local Government Elections. Using the last local government election as a reference point, the study by the Media Monitoring Africa survey clearly indicate that South Africa still has a long way to go when it comes to giving women access to media. Women in South Africa constitute 52% however data gathered by Media Monitoring Africa shows that in the previous local government elections in 2021 only 16.49% of women were used as media sources which is very low from the 20% recorded in 2019 elections. According to the Daily Maverick, most media organizations subsequently, with the notable exception of key SABC public service channels like Ukhozi FM and Umhlobo wenene FM (which have routinely been below the South African average), carried an average of 23% female sources. There is need for media houses to explore ways to ensure equitable coverage of women’s voices. Furthermore, women need also to make use of modern media channels such as social media to increase their voices.
Source: Media Monitoring Africa
Barriers to Effective Participation by Women in the Political Sphere
Participation of women in politics is hindered by several factors in South Africa. Male dominance in politics is one of the reasons which then makes the environment to be perceived by some women as hostile. The political environment is South Africa is hostile for many women to want to participate in it. Cases where election campaigns have turned violent, and assassinations of political players has been rife in South Africa in every election cycle. For instance, in the last local government elections in the last quarter of 2021 during an ANC community nomination process unknown gunmen killed three women with the candidate who was nominated to stand as Councillor going into hiding, fearing for his life. These political killings and violence corroborate with the Moerane Commission findings of 2018 which articulated that the scourge of political violence was far from over in South Africa. These levels of violence deter several competent women from taking part or being interested in politics. Violence and killings which they see are enough reasons to put them off from participating.
Women work much harder than men to enter the political space and survive competition. The political space has been characterized as male preserve for the longest and the political space is equally tough for women as they have to be feminine and masculine at the same time. While they are contesting or in the political space women also need to conform or perform their duties in the domestic space and with how election campaigning can be demanding many women might not have the strength to soldier on hence they would choose not to participate in politics but rather stay in the domestic space. With participating also comes with sexual harassment which comes from their male colleagues which involves commenting on their looks, sexuality etc. Male colleagues do use various obscenities during the election campaign and body shaming as a tool to demoralize or garner support. Some women do not have thick skin to ignore such sexual harassment as it may lead them into depression and mental health issues. To address such unprofessional behavior there is need for strong policy on violence against women and girls to be enacted and enforced. Secondly government should actively and consistently make use of available research evidence to understand the causes of sexual harassment in order to be able to design work and ways to prevent it. Thirdly, Women and girls’ safety in private and public places should be enhanced and prioritized.
Media and Women Parliamentarians
Media has a key role to play in the lasting involvement of women in politics. The tradition done by the media has been of on focusing only on senior women leaders and only covering them as news during elections period. While this is commendable as it helps drive up the number of women’s voices, it is not acceptable. Media houses need to ensure all women voices are heard even for those women that are not occupying senior positions in political parties. It would be appreciable if media makes a substantially better effort to ensure even equitable coverage of women’s voices. Being a politician involves not only leadership and power but exposure of the personal image, media has a key role to play in amplifying women’s personal image and branding so that they can be well known and advertised. Political parties also have a role to play in preparing their female representatives to engage with the media by ensuring that their female party members are well knowledgeable about the party’s policy positions on several matters such that when they are called for an interview they will have enough information to respond to journalists questions. It is important to note that lack of information most of the times makes women shy away from media as they would not want to embarrass themselves.
In order to do this media houses, need to stop trivializing women’s contributions or undermining their political contributions and rendering them invisible. There is need for women’s stories and contributions to also make headlines and be on front page of newspapers. Underreporting of women in terms of allocation of broadcasting time and shortening of women’s speeches should be addressed and women be given ample broadcasting time as is given to their male political colleagues. Coverage of women should not mainly be based on gender stereotype.
Media perspective/s needs to change. The media’s profit motive should be abandoned so that journalists seek for stories that amplify women’s voices and equality and not after scandalous stories. It is understood that journalists are guided by editorial policy and editor preferences, these also needs a seismic shift so that they can be tailor made in a way that pushes for equality. Having a gender focal person in media rooms can be ideal. Female politicians should avoid being media shy and be very quick and assertive to attend to journalists when they call asking for an opinion on a story or trending story. Those being media shy makes journalists not to contact them for a comment. This can be achieved by giving women more powerful roles that put them under the spotlight and help them boost their confidence. Secondly there is need for political parties to capacitate their female members on how to handle media personnel. Civil society organisations also need to assist in such activities and also offer help to female politicians.
Moreover, the media should broaden sourcing patterns so that parity between men and women’s views is achieved. Journalists should play a crucial role in raising public awareness on the need for gender equality and empowerment of women – balanced society in where both men and women enjoy same opportunities.
The media has a critical role in creating an enabling environment for effective participation of women in Parliament. Media has an important role in influencing public opinion about women’s abilities and capabilities as politicians. Therefore, political bias, underreporting, image distortions and misrepresentations often dent the reputation of female MPs and became an impediment to future political carriers of women.