'Uppity' Women in a Man's World: Zimbabwean Women Fight to Make Their Mark in the Media
Editor’s note: This is the first story in Edna Machirori’s two-part series about the media climate in Zimbabwe. Click here to read the second piece and here for more about the Global Voices: Truthdig Women Reporting project.
Working as a journalist in Zimbabwe is a risky business for all members of the media, but it is doubly challenging for women.
In addition to navigating the minefield of repressive media laws in force in the country, female journalists carry the extra burden of the effects of gender discrimination and patriarchy, which extend into newsrooms.
Hopes that the attainment of independence in 1980 would herald the end of repressive laws that curtailed freedom of speech and of the media under colonialism were short-lived. Expectations that a freer and more conducive media environment would emerge under a black government soon turned into despair.
The Zanu-PF government of then-Prime Minister Robert Mugabe not only kept the repressive apparatus inherited from the colonial government firmly in place but tightened the screws even further. Things have steadily continued to deteriorate under Mugabe, who assumed an executive presidency in 1987.
Today Zimbabwe is regularly ranked among countries in the world that have the most repressive media laws.
The story of one female journalist, Thelma Chikwanha, illustrates how suffocating Zimbabwe’s media environment is for such reporters.
Chikwanha is a journalist of 15 years’ standing. Despite this she languishes near the bottom of the masthead at the newspaper that employs her.
Her title is political editor, and she is one of only three women there, all of them at the tail end of the editorial pecking order.
But the very fact that she still works as a journalist at all is testimony to her resilience and passion for her chosen profession. “I am determined not to allow my voice to be silenced,” she told Truthdig. She is passionate about her career and instead of putting her off, her ordeal has whetted her appetite for success. “I don’t care how long it takes — my ambition is to be editor-in-chief one day,” she said.
In 2004, Chikwanha was assaulted in full view of colleagues in the newsroom of a state-owned newspaper for which she worked. Her attacker was a desk editor to whom she reported.
After the traumatized Chikwanha reported the matter to the police, the assailant paid an admission of guilt fine and nothing further was done. The all-male management at the media house also did nothing despite protests by the Zimbabwe Union of Journalists and demonstrations by fellow workers.
Instead, the management showed where its sympathies lay by punishing the victim and allowing the culprit to go scot-free.
Instead of bringing the attacker to account for perpetrating gender-based violence in the workplace, the management terminated Chikwanha’s contract. It would take her more than six years to re-enter the mainstream media on a full-time basis. She understands why most female journalists suffer in silence. “You tend to be stigmatized for standing up for your rights and labeled a troublemaker,” she said.
With management structures at most media houses being dominated by males, a complaining woman is unlikely to get any sympathy, she noted. “The men protect each other and as happened in my case, the victim is the one who is dealt with and punished,” Chikwanha said.
Meanwhile, benefiting richly from the impunity bestowed on him by management, the assailant has been amply rewarded and his career opportunities have continued to improve.
Today, he edits a large state-owned daily newspaper in Zimbabwe.
Chikwanha’s story illustrates the different trajectories the careers of male and female journalists can take in a patriarchal society. In such environments, women are supposed to be seen and not heard.
“Uppity” women capable of thinking independently and articulating views that challenge male authority are regarded as troublemakers and a nuisance.
Irritation with such women exists even among presidents of countries that claim to promote gender equality.
As an example, the former president of Kenya, Daniel Arap Moi, once described Wangari Maathai, a Nobel Prize-winning conservationist and founder of the Greenbelt Movement in Kenya, as “that madwoman.” He was cross with her because she successfully campaigned against a government project that was not environmentally sustainable.
During last year’s controversial general elections in Zimbabwe, Mugabe described Lindiwe Zulu, a communications adviser to the president of South Africa, as “a street woman.”
This was after she had voiced reservations about Zimbabwe’s readiness to hold free and fair elections before the implementation of electoral and media reforms.
This cultural lag between the declaration of gender sensitive policies and the change of attitudes is also evident in the media today. Female journalists are still treated condescendingly as not being as intelligent as their male colleagues. Some have complained of being passed over for promotion but being required to perform tasks that go with a higher position for no extra pay. Usually the role is held by an incompetent male who enjoys full benefits.
Senior female journalists serving as desk editors at both private and state newspapers complained about this to researchers who interviewed them for a Voluntary Media Council of Zimbabwe study on gender and the media.
“I do the donkey work and the man gets the credit,” complained one female journalist. She also described her frustration when she saw junior male reporters being given special assignments ahead of experienced female colleagues who were limited to the gender beat.
According to the “Gender, Media Ethics and Professionalism” study, “One female editor pointed out that there is a silent but pervasive situation where most male journalists have difficulty accepting the leadership of women. That not only impacts the number of women leaders in the newsroom but also the level of attention given to women’s issues.”
The study noted that female journalists play a largely peripheral role because of sociocultural reasons such as traditional beliefs, patriarchy and outright gender prejudice. “While the presence of women in media leadership can gradually transform the attitudes, norms and standards of reporting, currently there is more pressure on those women who land top posts to conform to male-centric newsroom culture and tradition,” the study found.
The overwhelming domination of males, particularly in the print media, affects the ability of the few women in decision-making positions to make a difference as they are forced to align with entrenched male-oriented newsroom values and practices, it also found.
Sexual harassment is rampant and victims usually have nowhere to go to seek redress as most management structures are male-dominated.
As in other rape cases, a female journalist who complains of being sexually harassed risks being accused of having brought the undesired attention upon herself by the way she dresses or some other ridiculous reason. After these confidence-sapping experiences, many choose to leave the profession quietly.
There are three main media organizations in Zimbabwe that publish mainstream newspapers — Zimbabwe Newspapers, Alpha Media Holdings and Modus Publications. Between them they publish 13 dailies and weeklies.
They all declare themselves to be equal opportunity employers, but none of the titles in their stables are edited by a woman. That means their coverage consists of a predominantly male-crafted narrative.
The VMCZ study illustrated this tendency. “The research confirmed that the coverage of gender and women’s issues is skewed based on the power and gender relations within the sector,” it found. “A situation that persists is the fact that the majority of practicing journalists in Zimbabwe are male. The domination of male reporters means women’s issues are reported from the male perspective, which is not always objective.”
The situation is unlikely to change “as long as news editors and other gatekeepers are themselves not gender sensitive,” the study concluded.