Taking Stock of Reproductive Health and the Media—Interview With Women's Edition Journalists

(December 2008) On Nov. 14, five of the 12 participants in PRB’s Women’s Edition seminar sat down to discuss reproductive health issues, the impact of the Women’s Edition seminar, and the challenges and opportunities of being a woman journalist.


What are some major challenges involved with reproductive health in your country?


Zofeen T. Ebrahim, freelance journalist for Dawn newspaper, InterPress Service, IRIN, and Women’s Feature Service, Pakistan: The lack of political will, not the lack of resources.


Nadezda Azhgikhina, columnist, Delovoy Vtornik (Business Today), Russia: First of all, the health care system is destroyed with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the transformation of our economy. The lack of political will and lack of public awareness are other problems.


Chinyere Fred-Adegbulugbe, senior correspondent, The Punch, Nigeria: In Nigeria, it’s a combination of many things. We don’t have the infrastructure right now. The public health care system has virtually broken down…Some of the challenges women face are a lack of awareness and a lack of knowledge of the things they need to do to access good health care delivery.


Catherine Gulua, information and investigative journalist, Resonansi, Georgia: We are a developing country and women’s health care is very poor. We need to learn much from developed countries.


Catherine Mwesigwa Kizza, features editor, The New Vision, Uganda: Uganda faces so many problems from a poor and under-resourced primary health care system. This has an impact on so many things. At the moment, we have the issue of HIV/AIDS and because we have a poor health care system, you find that women cannot access basic emergency obstetric care so women are rushed to health clinics that are basic and not able to treat complications. Even when they are referred up the health care system, at times it is so congested they may not be able to access the services. The problems are enormous.


What have you gained from this week’s training? How will you use what you have learned in your role as a journalist and what do you expect to gain over the next three Women’s Edition seminars?


Ebrahim: It opened my eyes to a whole new world called the new media which I was completely clueless about. I learned that it was alright to market (even if I may add aggressively and in many more ways than one) your stories. And meeting with so many wonderful and experienced journalists was so refreshing. It was indeed humbling to learn so many work in such difficult situations on difficult themes. I’m looking forward to developing a stronger and lasting liaison with these ladies and PRB…and wouldn’t want the network to end after the two-year period.


Kizza: The training helped explain several fundamental issues affecting women’s lives in many developing countries. I will only highlight one thing that was an eye opener. We always receive population reports and predictions but I had never been made to understand that demographers base them on certain assumptions (e.g., that the fertility rate of women gets to two children. In Uganda it has been 6-7 children since the 1960s). Without understanding such assumptions you cannot write accurate analysis or editorials…I intend to put into perspective all articles written on population and development issues when I return. Because I am an editor, I hardly get much time to write in-depth articles but I guide so many reporters as they write and this is one aspect I will explain to them and make certain is incorporated in our reporting. Uganda has one of the highest population growth rates and the political will to address this issue is weak. But if the issue is put into perspective, I hope we will have a change.


Azhgikhina: First, I got lots of inspiration, knowledge, and very important information both on new media technologies and the world situation in health in general. For me as a journalist from Russia, it was very important to have realistic impressions on global health issues as well as the situation in the developing world, and international strategies to improve women’s health and gender mainstreaming. It was important to confirm that women’s education and empowerment really lead to improvement of women’s health…I really appreciate …the great program … It was not a formal seminar from the very beginning, I should say, and it was extremely fruitful for the future network we hope to establish.


Fred-Adegbulugbe: I have gained quite a lot. When it comes to reproductive health issues, I would say that my mind was opened. The training has made it much more obvious to me that there is a need to get real creative as a journalist in order to let community members and policymakers pay attention to these issues. The training also empowered me by giving me so much information on issues to enable discussion and to write on them with better clarity, which is a very good thing for any journalist. And of course, the new media is an area I will really want to take advantage of to tell my stories…The information I have right now will make it much easier for me to present these issues to the readers in a better way. I am going to try as much as possible to do stories with the human angle. My expectation for the next training sessions? I would really like us to build up on how to tackle pregnancy-related deaths. The issue of empowering women should also be a focus, so women can take charge of their lives.


What are some of the challenges and opportunities in being a women journalist in your country?


Ebrahim: It’s like any other working woman—juggling the house, housework, family and job…In Pakistan I might add, print media is not a well-paying job. It is much easier for those working in English language newspapers/magazines to get stories on sensitive topics past editors than it is for those writing in Urdu…At times, I feel I have an advantage being a woman as generally people are more amenable to meeting you, responding to your queries etc. …they cannot often say no. With the private TV channels coming out in huge numbers, and media enjoying a fair amount of freedom, these are interesting times for electronic journalism especially in a country which is predominantly illiterate. They play an enormous role in influencing the masses…however, with this power should come responsibility and that has often been overlooked in the race to be the first to report.


Kizza: Challenges of being a female journalist are many: One fundamental one for us in Uganda is that we operate in an environment dominated by men. It is not surprising—most of our readers, buyers are men. Most of the literate in the population are men, very few women can afford to buy a newspaper, so this affects the balance in coverage of issues because the media tends to focus on issues “that sell.” Issues that affect women therefore may not easily get prominence in terms of front page coverage though they easily get in-depth coverage as feature articles. And this is where the opportunity for female journalists is. There is no editor who will reject a well-done, in-depth feature. The constraint though is in terms of resources. In-depth reporting requires a lot of time and money and this discourages many journalists off these stories.


Azhgikhina: To be a woman journalist in Russia means to belong to the majority of professionals (now, up to 80 percent of all media workers in Russia are female, but media leadership is male dominated). It means to earn less than men….and to face more challenges and sexism in many ways. It also means to have a chance to speak out…and to combine reporting with human rights activities.


Fred-Adegbulugbe: First the pros: Being a female journalist makes it easier for me to gain access to individuals my male colleagues would have been unable to reach. There is always the tendency to trust a woman more (unless of course she betrays that trust). But I must say there are more challenges. As a female journalist, you really have to work hard. You must prove to your employers and colleagues that being a woman isn’t a disability. Often, they believe because you are a woman, you are not capable of treating serious issues, so it is up to you to prove them wrong.


What is the media’s role in improving women’s health?


Gulua: I think the media is partly to blame for not having shows or programs on reproductive health or women health care. I think the media can have a leading role to make health care one of the priorities in life.


Fred-Adegbulugbe: The media has a very big role, but it has to be a media that is informed. That’s what makes a program like this very important because if the media don’t know, what are they going to talk about? That’s why I really appreciate what PRB is doing for equipping the media with the information they need. Once the media highlights the problems, any listening government would take action. So many people will get involved—NGOs, the international community, etc.— but it has to get out to the media first.


Ebrahim: I think that it’s a very interesting time for the media in Pakistan, especially for electronic media. We’ve seen a mushrooming of private television channels and FM radio. For a country that doesn’t have a high literacy rate, the media is influencing the general population. I think the media will play a very vital role in whatever issue that is taken up. The problem is that somehow the media has to get interested in reproductive health. But it seems it can be because journalism used to be a very male-dominated area but not any more. I can see a good relationship beginning here.


For more information, read an article on the November 2008 Women’s Edition seminar.

Eric Zuehlke is an editor at the Population Reference Bureau.