LIBERIA: Liberia Women Democracy Radio Boost Women's Numbers in Newsrooms

Tuesday, February 1, 2011
News Blaze
Western Africa
PeaceWomen Consolidated Themes: 

Garpeh produces about two such stories on the needs of women for broadcast each day by the Liberia Women Democracy Radio, housed in a two-story building in Congo Town on the outskirts of Monrovia.

Across the hall in the on-air studio, two men are hosting a talk show about reducing poverty. The day's theme: Transportation and how women in particular, due to their caretaking burdens, need better access to markets and medical centres.

Next door in the production studio, Varnetta M. Johnson is editing a weekly show on traditional women that explores different tribes' customs, such as weddings and greetings. Many Liberians are unaware of their traditions, she says, especially if their families have moved to Monrovia and left the old ways behind.

Launched in August 2010 by President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Liberia Women Democracy Radio is the first station in the country that focuses on women's advancement. Start-up funding from the United Nations Democracy Fund enables the station to pay its reporters. However, now with funding set to expire at the end of March, a financial transition team is working to establish an endowment account with a local bank to accept donations. The team is also working to start selling air time, seek sponsorship and raise funds.

In addition to producing radio shows, the station grooms female reporters, a tall order in a country where girls' education suffered disproportionately during the country's 14 years of civil war. Sixty per cent of women in Liberia aged 15-49 are illiterate, compared to 30 per cent of men in this age group, according to a 2009 fact sheet from the U.N. and Liberian government. Forty-two per cent of Liberian women - versus 18 per cent men - have never attended school.

The lower levels of women's education may help explain why female journalists are a minority in Liberian newsrooms and why women's issues often get overlooked. Only one-in-six journalists in Liberia is female, according to a report produced by Action Aid, an international anti-poverty agency, and the Liberia Media Center, a non-profit media organisation based in Monrovia. "All over Liberia women feel journalism is men's work, not just here," says Armstrong Bee, director of radio and head of business of Radio Gbarnga, a community radio station in Bong County's capital city in north-central Liberia. The station had one woman on its volunteer staff of around 20 and it is trying to recruit more.

To reach as many women and girls as possible, Liberia Women Democracy Radio is available in eight of Liberia's 15 counties. On air 12 hours a day, the station's programming ranges from live talk shows to nearly 30 pre-produced programmes and music that doesn't defame women.

According to Tetee Karneh, the station manager, many of the programmes and the news are broadcast in simple Liberian English so it's easier for ordinary women to understand. However, she doesn't have any way of measuring the number of listeners.

The station also runs a research department and organises community forums for women to share views. Men make up just under half of the station's 20-odd staff. That's partly due to the shortage of experienced female journalists but it's also done intentionally, to encourage male consideration of women's interests.

To boost women's numbers in newsrooms, the station has a training programme that reaches seven female university students in three universities in Monrovia. Two of the station's working reporters - Tecee Boley and Ladymai Hunter - are also receiving continuing education through a pilot programme called New Narratives, launched last July to link female journalists in Liberia for one-on-one training with veteran international reporters.

Tamasin Ford, country director of New Narratives, spends three days a month working with these reporters. "The Liberian media is hugely male dominated and tends to focus on politics; male writers pontificating about issues many ordinary Liberians don't understand," she says. "Female journalists tend to focus on more of the human angle to a story; issues like HIV, gender-based violence, access to education and health, fistula, child labour, and so on. Highlighting these types of issues will promote gender equality in Liberia," she adds.

Karneh believes that the station has shifted its reporting from covering formal politics to sharing the stories of real people. Women are also turning to the station for help, informs Estella Nelson, executive director of the Monrovia-based Liberia Women Media Action Committee, the station's parent organisation. One woman, for example, was initiated into the sande society - a sacred traditional society for women - and underwent forced genital mutilation. She came to the station to share her story and demand justice. Her case is presently before the court in Monrovia, shares Nelson.

However, the effort bring more women into the news profession is up against bleak finances. Few journalists make much money, which shuts out many women with caretaking responsibilities, says Karneh. Liberia Women Democracy Radio pays its reporters an average of $125 a month, she says, a large sum in a country where almost 95 per cent of the population lived on less than $2 a day in 2007, according to the World Bank Development Research Group.

Money was one reason why Janet Kpannah Sando, 27, a student at the University of Liberia in Monrovia, decided against being a journalist; she saw no future in it. Instead, Sando is studying public administration. Massa F. Kanneh, on the other hand, has decided to pursue journalism at the university regardless of the obstacles. But the 24-year-old says the number of other women in her department is dwindling as the year goes on. Many are making a switch to majors such as management, sociology and accounting.

Kanneh, however, is resolved to keep at it. "I want to be a radio journalist because you can reach more people as a broadcaster. If you don't have radio, your neighbours have a radio. I want to inform the people," she says, "I will be broke, but I will not be poor."