The NYT Issue on Women: A Larger Media Perspective

Ariel Dougherty

Globally mainstream media writes and broadcasts women’s and girls stories only 21% of the time. So, we must ask, while occasional, even excellent stories, do make it into the New York Times, isn’t the publication a part of the problem?

The recent publication of a series of articles in the New York Times magazine
focused on women and development, at a time when several books on the
subject have also been published, has sparked debate in the women’s
rights community internationally and domestically.  These debates come
at a time when US Foreign Aid programs are under review and during the
15th anniversary of the International Conference on Population and
Development.  Rewire is featuring commentary on these issues from a diverse set of voices in the US and abroad. 

Previous commentaries include on by Edwin Okong’o of New America Media, Yifat Susskind of Madre, Carol Jenkins of the Women’s Media Center and Amanda Marcotte of Rewire.

A compilation of the pieces posted on RH Reailty Check and on other blogs will be published on the week of September 14th.

“Equality Day” is an every day activity for many millions of women, not only around the globe, but also here in the United States.  Women work daily to improve the conditions of women’s lives, to end discrimination, torture, slavery, femicide.

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While we applaud the New York Times magazine for its well positioned and important issue of August 23, 2009 — on women’s human rights — we must remind the Times that globally mainstream media writes and broadcasts women’s and girls stories only 21% of the time. This is from data collected by the Global Media Monitoring Project in their third global survey of media worldwide in 2005. This Fall the GMMP launches their fourth such study.  Maybe the percentage points will improve, but realistically I doubt it will be much.  So, we must ask, while occasional, even excellent stories, do make it in the Times, isn’t the publication a part of the problem?

There is history and context for women like Mukhtar Mai to challenge her rapists, demand justice and forge a new agency to assist more rural women like herself.  For centuries, with spectacular increase over the last half a century due almost entirely to the international women’s movement, women have struggled to gain equity within home, commerce and politics.  In 1791, Olympe de Gouges wrote of contradictions she saw within the French Revolution: “The free communications of ideas and opinions is one of the most precious rights of women, since this liberty guarantees that fathers will recognize their children.  Any Citizen (citoyenne) can thus say freely: I am the mother of your child, without being forced by barbarous prejudice to hide the truth.”   She was guillotined for her outspokenness in 1793. The Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom was founded in 1915 to achieve world disarmament, full rights for women, racial and economic justice, and an end to all forms of violence.  Almost a century later it continues in this vital work.

Today, thousands of small, medium and large sized women’s human rights organizations have emerged to challenge the status quo of entrenched patriarchal governments and institutions to alter women’s lives from dying unnecessarily in child birth to gaining education to better the lives of their families. On average these organizations conduct their annual work with a budget of $35,000.   So, despite being forerunners in the scope of their human rights work they are not well known such as an agency like CARE.

Sister organizations focused around media, numbering several thousand around the globe, have systematically worked to report the real stories of real women’s lives.  The Women’s Feature Service was the first international effort to expand news by and about women. Starting in 1978, initially with UN support from the Fund for Population, WFS operated in five regions.  But it could never fully make the transition to other funding, hence the Service went through various transitions.  Today the only remaining component operates out of India serving primarily South Asia. Feminist International Radio Endeavor (FIRE) based out of Costa Rica since the early 1990s started via short wave and moved quickly to the internet as the new technology became available. Maintaining a close contact with its local Central American grassroots community the tiny, yet vivacious FIRE has a dynamic international audience.  Its goal is to amplify the voices of women in service to women’s human rights.  Sadly, FIRE too is off the radar screen of writers and editors at the New York Times and other mainstream media.  Gender Links is a significant women’s media service and advocacy organization in Johannesburg, S.A. It works with women’s organizations extensively throughout South Africa and other countries in Southern Africa.  Isis International in Manila plays a similar role providing media development and awareness among women’s groups largely throughout the Pacific region.  But their work is rarely acknowledged by mainstream media.

The blindness, lack of acknowledgement or even lack of awareness of the long and under-resourced labor of hundreds of thousands of women who provide history, context and a supportive climate for women like Mukhtar Mai to be able to stand up for herself is difficult, and dangerous, when it goes unreported in stories such as that of Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn. We are on a long continuum for change in women’s human rights. It will not come overnight. And women’s groups need to keep at the struggle and be supported to be on the front line. We need the funds to keep all these projects operational so the baseline for this work rises above $35,000.  We need mainstream media to occasionally hire the women media makers who have first reported these stories (ages ago), engage them to do an update or a new one. Women’s media organizational funding is far below the scale from that of women’s human rights organizations. Kristof has done marvelous work.  He alone, however, cannot cover all the stories that ripple across the globe. Ensure the spotlight is shared and that stories are presented in proper context, with some history and sage wisdom. That Michael Horowitz is identified even though as “conservative agitator” and not the monumental work of hundreds, like Charlotte Bunch, who made women’s rights a central component of international human rights law—this is grating and disrespectful.

Believe me, it is not solely the NYTDateline on NBC aired a segment on Sept 06 following Kristof back to Pakistan to visit Mukhtar Mai again.  In one brief long-shot I caught the logo of UNIFEM, the UN Fund for Women, on a sign in the background. Yet, no where in the story is this strategic women’s development and human rights agency mentioned as a supporter of Women’s Welfare Organization.  We want accuracy and fairness in reporting — as well as in our daily lives.

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