(December 2008) On Nov. 10, women journalists from 12 countries representing four continents gathered at PRB to equip themselves with information to reach out to those who need reproductive health services. The week-long seminar covered key topics in reproductive health as part of PRB’s Women’s Edition project. Editors, reporters, and correspondents from print and radio outlets attended from Georgia, Russia, Guatemala, Yemen, Nepal, Pakistan, Rwanda, Nigeria, Uganda, Kenya, Liberia, and Ethiopia.

Women’s Edition is a USAID-funded project at PRB that brings together senior-level women journalists from influential media organizations in different countries to examine and report on pressing issues affecting women’s health and status in the developing world. The 12 participants in this iteration were selected from nearly 200 applicants. Each journalist in the seminar came from a country with USAID-supported reproductive health and family planning programs. Four seminars will take place over the course of two years with the same journalists, each in a different country.

Throughout the week, PRB staff members briefed the group on world population trends, contraceptive policy, education and fertility, male engagement, and the dangers of childbirth and pregnancy in developing countries. Experts from the Global Health Council, the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and Webbmedia also participated in training sessions ranging from reproductive health, new media technologies, and gender and HIV/AIDS. These sessions were designed to strengthen the journalists’ knowledge of the reproductive health policy landscape as well as train the participants in new media outreach methods.

Common Challenges and Priorities

Informal discussions among the participants were just as revealing for the journalists as were the presentations. Each participant had experience, either personally or through family or friends, with prenatal and childbirth health complications and problems. Personal stories showed that strengthening public understanding of reproductive health issues is not a theoretical exercise, but a crucial pursuit that can save lives. The lack of access to information and knowledge among women of reproductive health options emerged as a major issue, common across all countries. Even when health care is available, many women in rural areas don’t want to be screened either out of fear or distrust of outsiders. The participants saw their role as journalists as integral to educating women and addressing their concerns.

According to Chinyere Fred-Adegbulugbe, senior correspondent at The Punch in Nigeria, “The training has made it more obvious to me that there is a need to get 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 information on issues to enable me to discuss and write on them with better clarity.”

Being a woman journalist brings with it unique obstacles and opportunities. “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,” said Zofeen Ebrahim, a freelance journalist in Pakistan. Catherine Mwesigwa Kizza, features editor at the New Vision, Uganda’s largest circulation newspaper said, “One fundamental challenge for us in Uganda is that we operate in an environment dominated by men…most of our readers 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.”

Many participants shared that journalism is not simply about providing information to the public, but a way of changing society for the better. The challenge is how to communicate health issues to the public at the grassroots level rather than just to the elite. Sessions on new media training addressed this issue.

Looking Forward

Each journalist will publish or broadcast an in-depth, policy-related story for her media outlet on reproductive health, based on the information and training they received at PRB. They will gather again in April or May 2009 for the next training session. In the meantime, the journalists will continue the discussions they began via an electronic listserv.

The Women’s Edition journalists returned to their home countries with new insight into reproductive health issues and policy and a renewed commitment to publicize these issues for the common good.

For more information, read an interview with five of the Women’s Edition journalists.

Eric Zuehlke is an editor at the Population Reference Bureau.