How are Colombian women being represented in the media?

A participatory journalism exercise led by IMS and El Espectador with women social leaders from different regions of Colombia gave the women leaders an opportunity to tell their stories of peacebuilding and change the way women are represented in Colombian media.

“The media has been a missing actor in the policies of inclusion and representation of women in society.” This statement by the Vice Minister of Multilateral Affairs of the Colombian Foreign Ministry, Laura Gil, sums up the absence of women’s voices in the press, not only in that country but around the world.

The dearth of women’s voices is not just from a lack of stories about them. The issue is even more complex. Their representation in the media is often focused on superficial or light topics and, although there has been a notable increase in stories that bring to the table the systematic and differentiated violence suffered by women – an achievement of the feminist movement rather than an action of the media itself – these stories tend to be generalist and revictimising. The urgent need for a gender focus in the press is increasingly evident.

Added to this is an insufficient number of other types of stories showing women’s resilience processes, their key roles in industries generally associated with men or, of course, their role in building peace in the world. This is especially important in a country like Colombia where women have been the greatest peace builders. At a recent event, the magistrate of the Special Jurisdiction for Peace, Julieta Lemaitre, said a phrase that illustrates this: “In Colombia, we women clean up the trail of war.”

   Hombres (%)Mujeres (%)
Belisario Betancur92.867.14
Andrés Pastrana98.031.97
Álvaro Uribe1000
Juan Manuel Santos84.3115.69
Figure 1: Presence of men and women at the negotiating tables (percent of participation). Credit: The role of women in the peace agreements in Colombia: the international agenda.

Added to this is the discrimination of women journalists within newspapers, such as the distribution of sources based on gender stereotypes: “Only 21 percent of women journalists cover all topics or are in charge of sections such as politics and justice,” says the 2015 report of the Foundation for Press Freedom in Colombia (Flip) called Peace in the headlines, fear in the newsroom.

This issue was discussed in early March at an event organised by the governments of Colombia and Greece, together with IMS (International Media Support), as part of the activities of the 67th session of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women held at the UN headquarters in New York in the framework of International Women’s Day.

The event, which took place on 6 March, discussed how Resolution 1325: Women, Peace and Security has been implemented in Colombia and included an example of a journalistic project that has contributed to its implementation, the Colombia+20 initiative of El Espectador called Women, we write the [hi]story.

Colombia+20 from El Espectador, a journalism project that not only follows up on the implementation of the peace agreement between the government and FARC guerrillas, but also bets on telling post-conflict stories and changing the narrative imposed during decades of armed conflict in Colombia.

In addition to Vice Minister Gil, Kalypso Goula, Secretary General for Gender Equity, Demography and Family of the Greek Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs; Malin Palm, IMS gender adviser; and Cindy Morales Castillo, general editor of Colombia+20 of the Colombian newspaper El Espectador. All attended the event and participated in a panel discussion. The panel was moderated by Arlene Tickner, Permanent Representative of Colombia to the United Nations.

During her speech, Gil confirmed Colombia’s commitment to the implementation of Resolution 1325, a historical debt that the country has owed to its women for a little over two decades. Resolution 1325 was issued in 2000 to recognise the importance of women’s participation in building, negotiating and consolidating peace in the world. The resolution stressed “the importance of their equal participation and full involvement in all efforts for the maintenance and promotion of peace and security, and the need to increase their participation in decision-making processes for the prevention and resolution of conflicts.”

Vice Minister of Multilateral Affairs of the Colombian Foreign Ministry Laura Gil, Kalypso Goula, Secretary General for Gender Equity, Demography and Family of the Greek Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs; Malin Palm, IMS gender adviser; and Cindy Morales Castillo, general editor of Colombia+20 of the Colombian newspaper El Espectador. All attended the event and participated in a panel discussion. The panel was moderated by Arlene Tickner, Permanent Representative of Colombia to the United Nations.
Panelists discussing Resolution 1325 at the side event of 67th session of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women.

In October last year – three months after Gustavo Petro’s inauguration as president – Vice Minister Gil initiated the process of designing the first action plan for Resolution 1325, 22 years after its issuance.

“This plan will include a chapter on the media and its role in the way it represents women. The media must be impartial, but not neutral, and must make decisions every day about whether they will confront the norms imposed by patriarchy or defend them,” said Vice Minister Gil.

In the same way, Secretary Goula highlighted the effort that has been made in recent years within the media to eliminate gender gaps and achieve equality, but also spoke of the threats faced by women journalists.

“Within the media there is a very strong inequity not only in the number of women within the newsrooms, but also among the women who are interviewed and the representation we make of them, although more and more work is being done on this. We have a pending account of the threats and risks they have when they do their work, that is why from the Groups of Friends on the Safety/Protection of Journalists we are working to fight against it,” said Goula. Vice Minister Gil also indicated that this diversity must be reflected in the newsrooms. “More diversity in the media and more coverage of issues translates into more informed decisions and more and better democracy,” she said.

Women and the media in Colombia

In Colombia, barriers still exist for women in their access to information and the press. “Despite progress, women still face structural obstacles and discriminatory practices that exclude them from public debate and prevent them from exercising on equal terms their right to publicly express their ideas and opinions, and to receive information,” states the report Implementation of Chapter J of the Beijing Platform for Action: Women, Media and Communication in Colombia of 2021.

The report states that: “access to the mass media to exercise the right to freedom of expression and press freedom is dominated, above all, by men with economic power, of urban origin and often close to the traditional political powers.”

Additionally, the report concludes: “Men make up the groups that own the media and have influence over the decisions of directors, editors and reporters…The voices of men who did not belong to the upper social classes were left out, and absolutely all women’s voices were left out.”

Using participatory journalism to change the story

El Espectador’s Colombia+20 project in partnership with the Colombian Women’s Initiative for Peace Alliance (IMP), Women, we write the [hi]story, was presented in that panel as an example of media that have helped in the implementation of Resolution 1325. 

Women, we write the [hi]story is a project that began in 2021 in which journalists from Colombia+20 worked with women social leaders to tell their stories of peacebuilding, thus contributing to changing the way women leaders are represented in the media. This project was a participatory journalism exercise with women social leaders from Norte de Santander, Cauca, Nariño and Arauca, Antioquia, Montería, Santander, among other regions of Colombia. The project was funded by IMS and used a methodology designed by IMS and El Espectador.

The project involved changing the routines of the journalistic teams that were used to going to the field, conducting interviews and returning to Bogota to produce the content. This is the first time that the subjects of the stories made the decision of what to tell, how to tell it, where to go, who to interview, what to publish and what not to publish. In other words, they participated in all the pre-production and production phases of the journalistic pieces. The journalists guided the exercise, but the decisions were made by the women social leaders.

The project has already had three phases in which some 15 women have participated. These women also participated in workshops with the journalists of the Colombia+20 editorial staff to build the stories, determine the approaches, the characters and then jointly produce texts, audio-visual products and podcasts that Women, we write the [hi]story began to publish on 13 September 2021.

“This project changed the journalistic routine we usually have to produce notes that consists of going to a place, doing interviews, producing that information – that is, looking for sources, researching – and then we ourselves look for the approach, the title, etc. Here we changed everything. From proposing the theme, the focus and, above all, highlighting stories that were of interest to them or their communities, their struggles or needs. This is how we met their need for communication and representation,” explains Gloria Castrillón, editorial director of Colombia+20 at El Espectador.

The project faced several challenges. The first, perhaps the most difficult for these women leaders, was writing. Many of them, according to journalists, were afraid to write, and that’s why it was key to have the reporters and editors travel with them.

The other challenge was including men journalists. In the first part of the process, only women journalists oversaw the project, but for the second phase, the editors decided that it was necessary to include men. “Normally the ‘gender-based agenda’ in the media is carried by women journalists. My colleagues were afraid of asking questions that would revictimise them or that were not understanding the whole picture of a story,” said Castrillón. In the end, the men and women journalists of the team wrote stories with the women social leaders. The stories of this project can be found in this multimedia special:

The following women social leaders participated in this project:

Ester Polo Zabala
Julia Chaparro
Adriana Rojas
María Helena Navarrete
Lexa Yhomar Tavera
Digna Rosa Ortega
Lisbeth Díaz
Fulvia Chunganá
Soraida Fuelantala
Bella Caluce
María Elena López
Ruth Sarita Bastidas
Luz Ángela Quiñones
Marleny Garzón
Yudy Villalba
Mujeres de Asfamipaz