Girl-Mothers and Taxi Seats

Last year, Emma Watson drew global attention to the idea that, if we’re going to make a real difference in gender equality, it’s not enough for women to stick up for women’s rights — men need to join the movement, too.

In the Democratic Republic of Congo — which UN officials have called “the rape capital of the world” — Anna Mayimona Ngemba is taking a similar approach to improving the status of women.

Anna co-founded and runs the Congolese Union of Women in Media (Ucofem), established in 1996 to reduce gender inequality by improving the representation of women in the media.

Sexual and gender-based violence are an ongoing problem in the DRC, which has been exhausted by war, underdevelopment and an unstable economy. Though the country is officially a democracy with functioning state institutions, the reality is far different. Parts of the country are beyond government control as are some sectors of its own security apparatus. Latent or open conflicts continue in several parts of the country. Civilian populations, especially women and children, are the primary victims of insecurity.

Journalists in the DRC, whether female or male, face serious challenges too.

The 2015 World Press Freedom Index has ranked the DRC #150 out of 180 countries around the world, due to government closures of dozens of media outlets and several arbitrary arrests of journalists. With local and national elections scheduled between now and the end of next year, the government seems increasingly intent on censoring independent press. And the human rights journalist Chouchou Namegabe receives regular death and kidnapping threats for her work promoting gender equality and women’s empowerment.

Two men, one holding a report and a woman holding a piece of paper
Anna Ngemba works to change perceptions of women and women’s issues in DRC. Credit: Internews

To help improve the situation for women — and for journalists — in the DRC, Ucofem takes a three-pronged approach: increasing the number of women working as journalists, getting more women interviewed as experts and encouraging the media to depict both women and men more progressively. (For example, rather than only interviewing women who stay at home, encouraging the media to feature women who work in offices, markets, representative political institutions, and schools.)

Working with a team of four in Kinshasa and volunteers across the country, Ucofem runs several initiatives to engage both women and men on gender inequality.

Problem: Women in the DRC face discrimination in various contexts and situations, from careers to marriages to equal rights and participation in society.

Last year, Ucofem launched the serial radio drama Et l’homme et la femme (Both Men and Women) to sensitize people across the DRC about gender issues that arise in everyday life, from the workplace to markets to the home. Radio is the number-one media in the DRC, especially in rural areas, where most people listen to radio at least once a day. And radio dramas are an especially popular type of entertainment among Congolese women.

Ucofem recruited a husband-wife writing couple to create the series based on issues they identified in group brainstorming sessions. They made four versions of the series — one in each recognized national language, Lingala, Kikongo, Kiswahili and Tshiluba — and broadcast it on more than 20 radio stations across the country. The 20 episodes address issues including women choosing a career, birth rights and shared taxis.

Anna said the series has helped people think of gender issues differently, including ones as everyday as where people sit in shared taxis.

“Generally, men prefer sitting next to the door and women have to sit in the middle,” she said. “But in this episode, the woman claims the right to sit where she wants — and why not by the door? There’s an exchange between them, but in the end she succeeds.”

Ucofem also used the series as a jumping-off point for conversation and engagement in rural communities. The organization hosted several “listening clubs” in the provinces of Bandundu and East and West Kasai, regions noted for gender inequality and harsh treatment of women. At each club, they played and discussed an episode of the show, encouraging men and women to talk openly together about the questions raised by the show. For many participants, the public forum was a new experience.

As an example of how Both Men and Women is turning private concerns into public points of conversation, Anna cited a listener of the Muslim radio station RCMI. “RCMI aired an episode about women’s right to work, and a woman phoned in to share her experience,” she said. “She’s a working woman, and her in-laws have always opposed the fact that her husband and their son let her work. It’s a daily battle for her. So for her, this series provides an opportunity for people like her in-laws to change their perceptions and expectations of women.”

Problem: Some girls in the DRC get married as young as 15 — which is illegal — and must drop out of school once they have children due to cultural pressures.

The province of West Kasai has relatively high rates of early marriage, with girls marrying as early as 15 despite the legal age of marriage in the DRC being 18. (The husbands are generally over 18.)

Two women stand in a field, one has a recorder held up to her face
Women’s representation in the media in the Democratic Republic of the Congo is limited. Credit: Internews

Working with volunteers in the provincial capital of Kananga, Ucofem held several discussion forums over the past year to address the problem of “girl-mothers” stopping their education early. They talked about the benefits of encouraging young women to finish school once they have children, rather than discouraging the practice.

“This is a question of ignorance, of the non-realization of rights,” Anna said. “We have to change certain cultural perceptions to see the social benefits of educating women.”

Problem: Women in the DRC are underrepresented in the media as experts and interviewees.

Working with a network of journalists across the DRC, Ucofem created a Directory of Female Resources of the DRC (FERES) that journalists can use to find female experts in more than 40 subject areas. The directory collected data from seven of DRC’s then-eleven provinces.

Ucofem sent its network of journalists on the ground a questionnaire asking them to recommend experts for the directory. The women’s areas of expertise range from agriculture, women’s and children’s rights, security and crafts to culture and tradition, the environment, industry — and of course media.

Ucofem has published two editions of FERES in the past two years, the first in 2013 and a revised edition in 2014. The third is slated to be issued next year.

Though there have been highs and lows, Anna reports that the representation of women in Congolese media is starting to improve “little by little.” For example, in the wake of FERES being published, Ucofem gets calls from the state-run Radio and TV station RTNC, in Kinshasa, asking for suggestions for male guests for their show Gender Issues.

FERES has also caused a stir at a radio station in the city of Kikwit. “RT Venus made FERES publicly available by announcing on-air that people could come in to use the directory in-person, whether or not they were journalists. A few days later, a lot of people were showing up — students, regular civilians, journalists who didn’t have access to FERES. There was such an influx that it started bothering the team at the station, and they ended up stopping the public consultations.” In response, Ucofem’s office in Kikwit got an additional shipment of directories to distribute to media that needed it.

What’s next for Anna and Ucofem?

Ucofem has bigger plans for Both Men and Women in the near future: broadcasting the series in more provinces across the DRC, and starting to evaluate and measure the show’s impact on society.

On the media front, Ucofem plans to launch an investigative journal focused on gender equality. To reinforce women’s abilities in journalism (and beyond), women will not only be the focus of the journal’s content — they’ll also be the reporters writing it.

As the DRC gears up for elections, Ucofem also plans to engage women to run as candidates and to participate more in politics. (They’ve found that more than 50% of women vote in the DRC, a higher percentage than among men.)

Amid President Kabila’s attempts to change the country’s constitution and run for a third consecutive term, Ucofem and its peers will unfortunately have plenty to keep them busy.

Ucofem is a partner of Internews. With funding from USAID, Internews has supported the production of Ucofem’s radio dramas and the FERES directory. Anna Mayimona Ngemba attended UNESCO’s World Press Freedom Day 2015 as an Internews Fellow.

Banner photo: A woman carries her belongings across a transit camp in Maluku, DRC. Photo creditUnited Nations Photo/CC

This story originally ran in Medium.