The Trouble With Making Women’s Programs All About Health – A Report from the UN Global Forum on Media and Gender

Blog author Emily LeRoux-Rutledge with Manisha Aryal at the UN Global Form on Media and Gender

Blog author Emily LeRoux-Rutledge with Manisha Aryal at the UN Global Form on Media and Gender

“Welcome to [the program] Let’s listen to women’s voices. In this program, we will be talking to an EPI (Extended Program on Immunization) representative to tell us how they immunize women.”

So begins the women’s program on a small South Sudanese community radio station in the North of South Sudan. I listen, and am slightly surprised. I’m researching the role that radio plays in women’s empowerment, and although I wasn’t sure what to expect from the women’s program, I didn’t expect this. For half an hour I listen to a male EPI representative talk about immunization.

“For the immunization of pregnant mothers, they are immunized against tetanus, and for other diseases the hospital is divided. There is a department to test for other diseases, and there is also a department where you are asked when the disease started. For a disease that is chronic, you are asked about it, and if possible you will be given medication that will help you recover a bit so that you are able to talk and explain the problem or the disease…”

The EPI representative goes on and on. During the entire half-hour program, the female interviewer interjects only three times. This is when I realize that women’s programming and health programming get conflated. A lot.

Granted, all of the reporters at this station are learning, supported by the NGO Internews, which provides on-going training and mentoring. A few years ago there were no reporters, and no radio station.

And the dry, informational style of this particular program notwithstanding, health is undoubtedly one of the most important issues facing women in South Sudan. One in seven women die in pregnancy or childbirth.

But is the blending of women’s programming and health programming problematic in any way? I would argue, yes.

The disadvantages

I have two concerns about conflating women’s programming and health programming.

Firstly, there is more to women’s empowerment than health. Preeminent feminist scholar, Naila Kabeer, defines empowerment as, “the process by which those who have been denied the ability to make strategic life choices acquire such an ability.”

Strategic life choices undoubtedly include health choices, but they also include other choices – for example, who to marry, and whether to continue with education (both choices often denied to South Sudanese women).

Secondly, women’s health involves more than just women. When I managed research on RMNCH (reproductive, newborn, maternal and child health) for BBC Media Action, as part of a 90 million pound, five-year strategic grant from DFID, one of our key target audiences was men. This was important, because in many countries, husbands hold all of the decision-making power. They decide, for example, whether and when a woman goes to hospital.

Conflation is therefore not only problematic for women’s programming; it’s problematic for health programing.

The advantages

I got another perspective on this issue, however, at the UN Global Forum on Media and Gender, which ran from December 2nd to 4th. Manisha Aryal, author of From Counting Women to Making Women Count and former Director of Internews’ Global Human Rights program, told me how she used health to start discussions with men in Pakistan’s tribal areas about Internews-supported radio programming.

“Because it’s so uncontroversial – everyone wants their kids to be healthy, their women to be healthy – it’s a very good entry point. Especially in places where you really want to get women’s voices and reach out to women. “

For this project, health was the best way to gain access to an otherwise inaccessible group of women. And after a few years the radio program was able to branch out to other women’s topics. Another obvious advantage to covering health in women’s programming is that women in many parts of the world have primary responsibility for looking after children, so persuading them to adopt healthier behaviours can benefit family health.

What lessons for communicators?

Clearly, health needs to remain a component of women’s programming. And it can serve as an entry point to reach women in challenging contexts.

But women’s programming should not focus exclusively on health. Indeed, I’m pleased to discover, as my research proceeds, that the women’s program on the aforementioned South Sudanese community radio station covers a wide range of topics.

Ultimately, I would offer two suggestions to those producing media content:

  1. Producers of women’s programs should be conscious of the amount of airtime they devote to health, and not cover health exclusively.
  2. Producers in general should be careful not to ghettoize health as a women’s issue. Everyone needs to be concerned with the health of women, including men.
5 replies
  1. Catherine Campbell
    Catherine Campbell says:

    Thanks for a great blog Emily. Wendy Harcourt makes a related point in her book BODY POLITICS IN DEVELOPMENT. Here she looks at how the MDGs around women’s reproductive health focused on the need to expand medical and pharmaceutical services, with less attention to the factors that would prevent women from accessing these. In this situation a focus on women’s health was a tokenistic way of ‘ticking the gender box’ in a way that would not stray into the explosive political and religious obstacles that stand in the way of women’s empowerment. For this reason, I am not sure that the recommendations you make at the end of your excellent piece could solve the problem you identify. Your recommendations suggest this is a technical problem to be solved at the level of radio programme design and management, rather than a very complex political problem that would need to be tackled much more widely?

    • Emily LeRoux-Rutledge | Internews Consultant, PhD Candidate, London School of Economics
      Emily LeRoux-Rutledge | Internews Consultant, PhD Candidate, London School of Economics says:

      Thanks for the comment Cathy. I think you make a very important point about the wider political context. However, I also think that small-scale changes in program design can be a viable starting point for wider change. This is a complex, multi-level problem; therefore I think a range of efforts (including efforts at the production level) can be used to tackle it.

  2. Chuol Jany
    Chuol Jany says:

    My gratitude goes to you Emily for the great job you did in South Sudan on Women issues..As South Sudan works to establish new institutions to empower the women, violence and tribal conflict continue to disrupt the lives of many people in the young country. “Communities affected by conflict are immensely vulnerable especially in Jonglei state,Nasir Community Development Agency (NCDA) has a program of developing integrated approaches to sustainable agriculture practices and food security as a means to address the many myriads problem facing women in South Sudan. Briefly–South Sudan’s women played a vital role in the founding of their country. During the war, they fought in the bush. They reached out to the women on the other side. With no other place to meet, they gathered under trees beside the river and started the dialogue that would form the basis for the peace. Some of them negotiated the agreement that ended the war. And women cast the majority of votes in both the election (60 percent) and the referendum for a nonviolent split from Sudan (52 percent) they deserved to be empowered,Internews South Sudan have create many programs to end the violent against women through Media.

  3. Asante Haughton
    Asante Haughton says:

    Emily, great blog entry! In response, as a male I’m inclined to ask, how can I and other men act as allies in the movement for women’s empowerment?

  4. Sharon Jackson
    Sharon Jackson says:

    Very interesting blog post. Entirely agree with you on the need not to conflate women’s and health programming. While health is an important element, certainly women’s empowerment (and other issues of concern to and for women) involve more than solely health, and health issues, including women’s health issues, involve other people than women. And at the same time I agree that they can create useful entry points for one another. I’ve found in my own work on Gender Based Violence (GBV) in low-income countries that organisations, partners and supporters were able to work effectively on GBV, which everyone could easily view as a life-and-death and health issue, and the work on GBV then served as a concrete entry point for discussion and action on gender equality and injustice issues more broadly, when it had previously been difficult to galvanise that broader discussion. Two other thoughts reading your post – one, what have you found are some pitfalls of the more ‘instrumentalist’ approach, where women are seen (solely?) as a pathway to improving child or family health? And, have you found much of a critical perspective from either side – e.g. questioning what is defined as “women’s programming” or what “women’s” issues are included in health programming?


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