The Media Needs to be Central in UN Policies for Young Activists

The prevalence of media narratives and their influence on how on the ground actions shape up is a major reason why the UN policy on girls and women activists is only a first step.

By Anmol Irfan

In mid-July the UN Human Rights Council announced a new policy regarding the work of women and girls activists across the globe. Focusing mainly on efforts for gender equality on ground by women and girls in the Global South, the policy details the barriers women and girl activists face and how local and international leadership can create sustainable support for their efforts. What makes the policy stand out amidst other global policy level conversations around gender justice is the emphasis it puts on women and girls’ roles as changemakers on a global level. Where women have been passive parts of even gender justice conversations for so long, understanding the need to support them in their active role for change is a crucial step in platforming and uplifting women’s voices.

‘I think UN policy on women and girls activism brings us to a point to acknowledge women and girls contribution as drivers of change around the world – and its an important point in ensuring women and girls activism is seen and they’re given equal access to do their work,’ says Felicia Anthonio, a human rights activist in Ghana who works around period poverty and is campaigner with Access Now. 

Amidst consultations, one major point highlighted was that, ‘[a]uthorities should support the voices of young activists more; instead of silencing or minimising them, they should be used as platforms to empower, generate a change,Wardah Noor, a Pakistani activist and founder of Khudkaar,  a social enterprise working on the digital and financial inclusion of young women in Layyah, a district in South Punjab, Pakistan points out that the policy makes a major step in acknowledging the various educational and social structures that often limit women in the Global South. 

‘One new thing in the policy is that along with girls’ education it also mentions skills. Previous policies made by the UN talking about educating girls don’t keep in mind realities of educating girls in those specific countries in the global south. Even if you put young women in schools you don’t realise they’re not contributing much to their growth,’ she tells Media Diversity Institute. 

This particular focus is perhaps what makes the policy so important at a time when women and girls’ efforts for gender equality across the world are struggling with authoritarian governments not just in terms of making change, but often for their own safety and security as well. A major part of this struggle is often shaped by media narratives for two reasons. Firstly because media narratives play a big role in how local citizens view activists working against the status quo and impact the way in which those activists are then treated by society and even political leadership. Noor points out how this happened in Pakistan when a video of two men and a woman marketing the Climate March last year went viral and became a reason for controversy. 

‘The media picked up the video and started slandering the girl, talking about her clothes and how she was being inappropriate because of which she faced a lot of criticism and pressure,’ she said adding that the girl subsequently didn’t even end up attending the march, and that the march was mainly led by men. 

‘Attacks like this lead to women taking a back seat due to the biased coverage their activism gets,’ Noor points out.

The other aspect of media impact is how media coverage connects local efforts with international audiences, in order to promote efforts by women and girl activists.  

‘Media has been a powerful tool in amplifying the work of women and girl activists in the world but unfortunately we are under represented or misrepresented in most existing media – be it online or offline. If you’re talking about climate change and technology it affects women and girls so why are you not involving them. Media is very powerful and once they pick a narrative that’s what goes further,’ Anthonio tells Media Diversity Institute while further talking about why media impact is one of the reasons why legislation can only go so far. 

‘Legislation is important but I think when you look at issues that affect women and girls, I believe what we really need to move forward and improve these issues is behavioural and mental change. Some discrimination, stereotypes that women face are based on traditions, cultural norms or stereotypes that people just want to live with and they think as a woman this is your role. Once you stand out in terms of what a woman or girl is supposed to be then there is a problem,’ she adds. 

The prevalence of media narratives and their influence on how on the ground actions shape up is a major reason why this policy is only a first step – and as much as activists are appreciating the step towards bridging the divide between policy and action, there’s still a lot of work to be done. While policies should be applauded they cannot be seen as a replacement for the on ground localised work that needs to be done across the world every day. 

‘The first thing I would say, is it’s an important policy and essential for shaping women and girls role in activism so the media needs to drive home the message of what are we trying to change and what are we trying to improve This is the time for the UN to engage the media and give them a central role to drive home the message of this new policy,” Anthonio concludes.  

Photo Credits: Drazen Zigic / Shutterstock