In this update, we look at the South African media’s coverage of women on National Women’s Day, and the day before and after in the daily print. News media with weekly publications were investigated the week before and after the commemoration of the event. This was monitored by the Media Monitoring Project (MMP) in line with its media challenge for 2007. The investigation revealed that newspaper coverage around Women’s Day concentrated on prominent women, the dismissal of the Deputy Health Minister and gender-based violence.

MMP urged the media in July to take up the challenge and actively show their support for women by focusing not only on the prominent women in government and business, but especially on “ordinary” women and their roles in effecting social change. This includes successfully entering the workforce in previously male dominated environments. , as women were, and to some extent still are, excluded from some of these workplaces.

In line with previous coverage, much of the coverage on Women’s Day focused on successful women, mostly in business, as well as the obstacles that women face. While coverage on women who are successful is good, past research indicated that this is partly tokenism for Women’s Day, as monitoring in other periods reveals such reports are rarer in other periods of the year.

Some stories emphasised that traditional masculine bastions are slowly opening up for women. The Times (8/08/2007, p. 6) carried two stories of women entering the taxi-business, both as drivers and as owners. In fact, the Sowetan (08/08/2007, p. 34) reported that half the people registering businesses are female, and that about 90 percent of the people are African, which the Sowetan notes, is a break from the trend, as the majority of people starting a business were white and male.

Despite the strides made, The Star reported (08/08/2007, p. 3) that women still faced many prejudices and cultural struggles. This, amongst other things, has limited the economic and social impact women have made.

Foremost among the prominent figures featured during Women’s Day was Deputy Health Minister Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge. This is not surprising as the event coincided with the dismissal of the health minister. The Sunday Times (12/08/2007, p. 4), contrasted Madlala-Routledge with Health Minister Tshabalala-Msimang, criticising the controversial stands the Minister took with HIV/AIDS. A number of articles pointed to the irony of the dismissing of a woman believed to have done a good job on Women’s Day. However, few media picked up the gendered nature of the effects of HIV/AIDS.

Considering the emphasis on successful women, it would have seemed appropriate if the media have highlighted the report of the Commission for Employment Equity released in July specifically on the issue of white women’s removal from list of previously disadvantaged groups. This was not substantially looked upon during the wider debate on Women’s Day.

A few articles covered women in their role as agents of social change. Some examples appeared in the City Press (12/08/2007, p. 12) and The Star (09/08/2007, p. 11). The former focused on a group of 25 women, who run a house for the care of bedridden HIV/Aids patients, the elderly and the destitute in the Welbedacht township near Durban. While the latter report is about Elsie de Kock’s initiative to start a soup kitchen for children. These reports show women in a positive light, it does not contribute to portray women as agents of social change, but rather, in supporting those who should be supported by the state.

Some editorials and experts dwelled on the importance of Women’s Day in challenging the status quo. An editorial in The Citizen (09/08/2007, p. 12), reflected that even if equal gender representation in positions of leadership is achieved, it does not automatically translate into the improvement of the lot for ordinary women, and that crime and cultural practices still oppress women. Other articles mentioned obstacles such as the institutional inefficiency of the government in protecting women from abuse, and the lack of opportunity for many women to empower themselves through education. or business.

Gender-based violence and coverage of other crimes against women featured as well. An example of this can be found in the Sowetan (10/08/2007, p. 4), where a brutal attack on a woman was described, which left her blind. It was reported that four days after the attack, her statement still has not been taken by police. It seems that this incident was highlighted in an attempt to make the police act on the matter. Although coverage of gender-based violence is important to highlight, the lack of follow up often reinforces the view of women as victims.

In general, judging from the period immediately surrounding Women’s Day, it seems that the media did not cover it in a manner that breaks from past coverage. “Normal women” engaging in acts to change society were largely ignored in place of prominent women. However, considering the history of Women’s Day, it is exactly normal women who try change society that we should be celebrating.

– by Albert van Houten and Sandra Roberts