Media, Women and Elections: An African Perspective


Patricia A. Made

One of the major roles that the emerging independent media have played in Africa’s push towards democracy has been that of a ‘watchdog’ to keep governments accountable to human rights, the rule of law and good governance. Ensuring that governments uphold their national Constitutions and that they do not misappropriate public funds are central to the media’s watchdog function.

The accountability and public interest roles of the media often take centre stage in the coverage of politics and elections in Africa. Keeping a keen eye on what politicians say and do, and on their actions, is an integral part of the daily news diet of the mainstream print and broadcast media.

Ensuring fair representation, equitable access to freedom of expression – to not only political parties and candidates but also citizens – and fair and impartial coverage are just a few of the key principles that should guide election coverage in a free and democratic society.

In the 14 countries 1 that are grouped into the Southern African Development Community (SADC), national and public broadcasters have developed Guidelines and Principles for Broadcast Coverage of Elections in the SADC Region.2 Although these guidelines, too, are gender-blind, in the Preamble they do make reference to the 1997 SADC Declaration on Gender and Development, upgraded to the SADC Protocol on Gender and Development and signed by Heads of States in 2008, as one of the regional instruments on which the guidelines are based.

The print and broadcast media, however, are still weak in playing the watchdog role when it comes to African governments’ compliance with international and African instruments on women’s human rights and gender equality and justice.

Yet an important way for the media to view accountability is to examine the ability and willingness of politicians – both women and men – to raise issues of gender equality and gender equity in accordance with international and regional instruments, as well as the Bill of Rights and/or other laws under each country’s own Constitution, which should guarantee the rights of all citizens and their access to justice.

When looking at the political, economic and social status of women as citizens, the media should question whether male and female politicians use their positions and influence to effect a positive change in women’s status, in view of the fact that women often do not enjoy all the entitlements that should be guaranteed and afforded to all citizens and, therefore, cannot participate fully in society.

A number of factors hinder women’s effective participation as citizens in governance and decision-making processes, and in politics. By highlighting these factors while reporting on politics and elections, the media can put the spotlight on systemic anomalies in politics and electoral processes which shut out not only women, but many other vulnerable groups in society, from participation in governance as equal citizens.

Often the media miss these stories because reporting on politics and elections, like many other issues, still remains gender-blind. The media fall short of their own accountability role, which is to work and report in the interest of the public, when women are not given equal access to voice their opinions and views as news sources and when women politicians and candidates are rendered invisible or only covered in stereotypical ways.

Throughout Africa, however, there are now concerted efforts by non-governmental organisations, gender equality and women’s human rights activists and the media themselves to improve professionalism and the quality of news through gender-aware reporting.

Gender-aware reporting requires journalists and editors to ensure that an event or issue is told through the voices of both women and men. It requires journalists and editors to seek and use data disaggregated by sex, to ensure that background information (context) and analysis reflect the perspectives of both women and men. Such an approach would help illustrate how the particular issue, policy or event being reported on affects diverse members of a society, including male and female citizens.

Good research, in-depth reporting and analysis, a diversity of sources and perspectives together bring about gender-aware reporting. Clearly these characteristics are also the basis of good journalism. An excellent example of gender-aware reporting on politics and governance in Africa, which appeared in the American news magazine, Newsweek, can be found at

Women, Politics and Elections

Politics and elections are highly visible stories in the African media and, during the past few years, the media have been in election news overdrive. Some 19 elections were scheduled across the continent between 2007 and 2009.

These elections came at a time when the African Union (AU), the continental body grouping African nations, and regional groups such as the Southern African Development Community (SADC), had called for gender parity (50/50) in the public and all decision-making arenas.

But how, most reporters and editors ask, do we factor gender into our work? Is it just a mere matter of ensuring that more women appear as sources in stories or is there more to it than that?

Asking the right questions that probe beyond what is taken for granted as the status quo is often the beginning of uncovering new angles and issues for reporting on elections from a gender perspective. A few examples of questions that can guide coverage are provided below.

Where are the women?

1. When covering elections the media should check whether the nation is signatory to international and regional instruments that commit it to increasing the percentage of women running for and holding political office. Political parties and government should be held accountable as to whether the percentage of women candidates fielded for elections is in accordance with these instruments. If not, why not? If women are participating in large numbers, what has led to this development, especially if increased numbers signal a departure from past elections?

2. The media also need to look into the type of electoral system(s) followed for presidential, parliamentary and local government elections in the country and whether it/they help or hinder women’s entry into political office.

3. The media can also analyse trends (if any) in female candidates standing for elections and women holding political office, using accurate and verifiable data to support the analysis.

4. The media must also examine the factors that keep women from becoming candidates and/ or holding political office, especially since they comprise the majority of the population and, in many African countries, even constitute the majority of registered voters.

Who ‘speaks’ in stories on elections?

Numerous studies show that women’s access to freedom of expression in and through the media is low in relation to their population numbers in most societies.3 In fact, research data reveal that the news is told largely through the voices and perspectives of men. Having a ‘say’ about the ongoing electoral and governance processes in a country should be the right of all  asked to ensure that election coverage supports freedom of expression for all are:

  1. Does your coverage contain only the voices of men? Do these men represent diversity in terms of status (race, class, etc.) or are they primarily men in positions of prominence, power or formal authority?
  2. Have the views of women political candidates, women voters and women experts, been captured in news reports, news analyses and other forms of reporting on elections?
  3. Does the coverage rely on one sex or only a few voices based on the assumption that these speak on behalf of the majority?


  1. Does the story contain language that promotes sexism, gender bias or discrimination, or gender stereotypes?
  2. Does the language hype or sensationalise the situation beyond what has actually happened in order to sell the news and attract audiences?
  3. Do any of the adjectives used to describe the character or physical appearance of women politicians or candidates convey prejudice?

A Missing Story

Nearly a quarter of the 272 parliamentarians in 110 countries in every region of the world who responded to the global survey of women and men MPs conducted by the Inter- Parliamentary Union (IPU) noted that they faced funding challenges in contesting and winning elections. Women generally face more of a disadvantage in this respect than men.4

Following the story of the flow of resources into the political system could strengthen the visibility and audibility of women in elections and other political processes. Is there a government funding mechanism? Who is benefiting? Is this in compliance with any existing regulations?5

What the Broadcast Media Can Do

During elections the broadcast media can develop a number of current affairs shows with women and men panellists to ensure gender balance in political discussions in the public sphere. Radio talk shows and phone-in programmes can also facilitate public debate and discussion on questions related to women’s participation in politics and elections. A few examples of such questions in the African context:

  1. How have women been able to make their way into public life in such large numbers in societies not otherwise noted for equality between the sexes?
  2. What are the conditions favouring women’s political effectiveness?
  3. What difference has women’s presence in public life made to the character of local and national political competition?6

A complete checklist to be used by the media to guide coverage of elections from a gender perspective can be found on the IPS Africa ‘From Polls to Polls’ website at The site also contains 100 stories from elections across Africa in 2007- 2008, many of which are written from a gender perspective.

And, finally, here is a case study from Zimbabwe, which shows another way in which the media can play an important role in putting women’s equal participation in politics, elections and governance on the public agenda.

Women Can Do It Campaign in Zimbabwe

A smartly dressed woman in a brown skirt and beige shirt kicks off her shoes, grabs a handful of colourful markers, and begins to engage with the flipchart and a small eclectic group of Zimbabwean women on how to shape the beginnings of a campaign that would later become one of the most visible movements to get women into politics in this Southern African nation.

Looking back now on the controversial 2008 elections (March and June), Luta Shaba, the Executive Director of the Women’s Trust in Zimbabwe, believes that, while the ‘Women Can Do It!’ campaign undertaken by the Trust may not have resulted in more women being elected to parliament and public office, its achievements in terms of visibility and messages should not be underestimated.

Sitting in her office in Harare, the capital city, Shaba says confidently that one of the greatest achievements of the campaign was that its name and slogan – ‘Women Can Do It!’ – was so visible and effective that it silenced dissent. The usual chauvinistic responses to women’s participation in politics and the customary backlash that suggests that “this is not the time for gender issues” were kept at bay by the visibility of the campaign.

Among the campaign’s key messages was “Women have a right to participate in politics, as decision makers at all levels, as leaders in society, and as voters.” To women themselves the message was “Present yourself as a Candidate.” To the country’s registered women voters, the message was “Vote for other Women.” To the general public the message was “Give us (women) a chance to lead.”

The Trust’s key partners in accomplishing the goal of getting the campaign’s messages out were the media in Zimbabwe, both government-owned and privately-owned. This is in a country where the media have been under siege politically and economically, and where the media have often sent out mixed messages on women’s activism for gender equality and gender justice. According to Shaba her organisation deliberately engaged with the media for several key reasons.

“The political arena is a highly contested one and, because of the political nature of elections, the media’s focus on this arena is highly visible. We deliberately set out to engage strategically with the media throughout the entire process to highlight women in politics generally and these elections particularly,” Shaba says. “Also, we saw a mutuality of interest. The media’s role is to highlight what is in the public interest and we saw the women’s agenda as a matter of public interest. We engaged the media to gain legitimacy and visibility.”

Dr. Amy Tsanga, deputy director of the Women’s Law Institute in Zimbabwe at the University of Zimbabwe, who evaluated the ‘Women Can Do it Campaign!’, says that from her interviews with various audiences it appears that the campaign’s message that “the (political) playing field needs to be levelled for the inclusion of women in politics” resonated with a large majority of people. According to Tsanga, they also seem to have internalised the message that “women can do it and that there is a need for egalitarianism in politics, a need to include those traditionally left out.” She adds that the majority of those she interviewed “felt that the (campaign’s) message was appropriate for Zimbabwe now.”

Besides pro-actively engaging the media, the Women’s Trust also trained female candidates and women politicians in a variety of skills, ranging from public speaking and presentation techniques to how to become informed and up-to-date on current affairs and topical issues. “As part of our leadership training we encouraged women politicians to have opinions on topical issues, to be pro-active on issues, to seek out journalists and to be ready to speak on issues (to the media),” Shaba says. “We encouraged them to see the value of journalists as part of their various networks.”

The ‘Women Can Do It Campaign’ and the media joined hands, so to speak, to disseminate the message of women’s equal participation in politics. How did the Trust do this? By engaging the media at the very beginning of the campaign’s thinking process. “We used a direct approach,” Shaba says. “We approached the Union of Journalists and met with them to get inputs into the design of the campaign’s communications process. We held a gender awareness session for journalists from all the media and updated them on electoral processes and laws and the reasons behind the tendency for women to fall by the wayside in politics. We also briefed them on the rationale of the campaign. We kept up consistent public relations with the media during all of our events. This worked so well that when they got wind of our training for new parliamentarians, they themselves asked to come.”

Shaba adds that the broadcast media in Zimbabwe were “more proactive in asking us to come and speak about the campaign on news and current affairs programmes,” while the print media sought the Trust’s comments on gender in the election processes as well as governance issues.

The Women’s Trust made it a priority to budget for the creation of media materials such as radio slots, advertisements with the campaign’s jingle placed strategically during prime-time viewing on television, and columns and supplements showcasing the campaign in the print media. New media, such as SMS messages, were also used to reach women across the country.

According to Shaba, one of the most important lessons from engaging with the media to give visibility to the issue of women and politics and to create a conversation across Zimbabwe on the need for women to participate equally in politics was the realisation that the media can be an effective way for women to “stake their claim in the public interest arena” and to stay focussed on their own agenda. “We managed to remain apolitical in a highly-charged political environment by focusing on women and gender equality in politics and the public sphere. We stuck to the message with the media in a non-confrontational and objective way, and this gave us credibility.”




1 Countries grouped in SADC include Angola, Botswana, Democratic Republic of Congo, Lesotho, Madagascar, Malawi, Mauritius, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, Swaziland, Seychelles, Zambia and Zimbabwe

2 See

3 See the Global Media Monitoring Projects coordinated by the World Association of Christian Communications

(available here: and, in Africa, see the 2003 Gender and Media Baseline Study coordinated by Gender Links and the Media Institute of Southern Africa (available on

4 Julie Ballington, Equality in Politics: A Survey of Women and Men in Parliaments, 2008, Inter-Parliamentary Union, Genevat

5 Questions adapted from CEDAW, The Optional Protocol and Women in Decision-Making, A Manual for speeding the pace of change, published by the Women’s Environment and Development Organization ( WEDO), New York, December, 2004

6 Questions adapted from No shortcuts to Power – African Women in Politics and Decision Making, edited by Anne Marie Goetz and Shireen Hassim, ZED Books London and New York; David Philip, Cape Town, 2003