Annual report 2020

The good and the ugly side of media

Journalists, often unknowingly, create stereotypical, victimizing portraits of women, but media also has the power to transform, as gender advisor Laura Gil has learned

This interview was published in IMS’ Annual Report 2020

Laura Gil is the programme advisor of IMS’ 1325 programme. It is named after UN Security Council Resolution 1325 (UNSCR 1325) which seek to increase women’s participation and representation in peace processes, and it runs simultaneously in Colombia, Myanmar and Syria – three countries which are all torn by lengthy, brutal armed conflicts and which in different ways strive to find peaceful solutions. IMS’ programme focus on increasing the number of women journalists reporting on peace processes and conflicts as well as making stories from women in excluded groups known to the public and decision makers.

Prior to joining IMS, Laura Gil, who has a background in international relations, worked on the drafting and implementation of the Victims and Land Restitution Law, a law that ultimately opened the door to peace negotiations in Colombia. In parallel to this, she had a column in the country’s biggest newspaper.

“I was a human rights defender who by accident became an opinion journalist, and I learned about the good, the bad and the ugly sides of media – for example how journalists, often unknowingly, transform women social leaders’ strong, active narratives into stereotypical, victimizing portraits.”

But Laura Gil also realised the positive power that media can perform. “I came to see journalists not only as simple messengers, but actors of change,” she explains. It is one of the main reasons she finds IMS’ 1325 programme extraordinary.

“This programme has an innovative twist that I haven’t seen anywhere else: instead of considering the media an ally in promoting the gains of the 1325 resolution, IMS turned media into an active implementor.”

Reservation plans

A main goal of the programme is to further collaboration between local women’s rights organisations and local media to promote a diverse coverage, expert knowledge and a gender and conflict sensitive approach. An example of this is a podcast published in 2020 with personal interviews of a group of indigenous Awá women from the south of Colombia. These women had all moved to a nearby big city as very young – down to eight years – in the hope to escape poverty and find a steady income to support their families, many lured in with false promises of education and fair salaries alongside their work as housekeepers for city residents. In the podcast they told their stories: after working under conditions bordering to slavery for decades, they attempted to move back home to their birth reservations, but the local indigenous authorities questioned their Awá identity and denied them access. After the podcast had aired on local indigenous radio, it stirred an intense debate among the local authorities and Awá women who are now trying to set up their own women’s reservation.

“This issue is now discussed broadly, and the indigenous authorities is forced to take it seriously. To me, it’s amazing that these women – who have been largely invisible in public life and debate – have joined forces to establish a new life and demand to be heard,“ Laura Gil says and underlines:

“It’s a long and complex process to set up a new reservation, but I see it as a major contribution that they now are in a position to negotiate with authorities. It’s a great example of the power of media to push for positive change and women’s rights.”

Via two local partners, a media and women’s organisation, IMS supported the production of the podcast, from the initial research to publication and distribution. The programme supported trainings of the journalist in gender sensitive reporting and interviewing of sources. Thus, the podcast is also a good example of its untraditional approach to working with media.

“We believe that media shouldn’t only engage with women’s organisations when they publish the main findings of a report – no, it should be a close, mutually beneficial collaboration where the organisations help the media gain access to stories, sources and expert knowledge, and women’s many roles and voices in society will be portrayed accurately, respectful and stereotype-free,” Laura Gil explains.

2020: a trying year

It is no secret that 2020 was an exceptional year in many ways. According to UN, the outbreak of Covid-19 put at risk all the gains on women’s rights made during the past decades, and gender-based violence rose dramatically. As sad as this fact is, it also established the importance of programmes like IMS’ 1325 programme which focus specifically on those who are most vulnerable during conflicts and crises. “Women’s voices and needs were overlooked in media coverage of the pandemic as well, and it clearly emphasised that there is still a great need to work on gender equality in the media everywhere in the world – especially during a crisis,” she states.

The IMS programme managed to continue in all three countries during the pandemic, but with necessary adaptations: “As many of those we work with are women, we had to consider the gendered differentiated implications of the pandemic – we knew that men and women would be affected differently and that much of the domestic and caretaking work would fall on our women collaborators and sources, for example, so we had to be sensitive to their needs,” Laura Gil explains.

While 2020 was by all means a challenging year for women and for women’s rights, it also fired up the fight. “It felt like a collective sentiment of women all over the world that this is it! We’ve had it with the inequality and injustices. Structural changes must be made,” Laura Gil recalls. “At no other point in my lifetime, the gender differentiated consequences of a crisis has stood out so clearly, and everywhere I looked, women were calling out for change.”