Women and Media: Progress and Issues

  on January 21, 2014

Human Rights Mechanisms

Facts and Figures


The 1995 Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, China propelledinternational concern and action on the role of media in perpetuatingwomen's subordination as well its importance in advancing women'srights. The Beijing Platform for Action (BPFA) gave an overview ofproblems and issues surrounding women and the media and spelled outspecific strategies for governments, media organizations,non-government organizations and other civil society actors. It calledfor: a) women's increased participation in and access to media and newinformation and communication technologies (ICTs); b) promotion of abalanced and non-stereotyped representation of women in the media.

More than four years later, WomenWatch,an initiative of the United Nations to assess progress and obstacles onBPFA held an online-discussion. The discussion concluded that therehave been few improvements in media portrayal of women both inadvertising and news coverage. Women still scarcely occupydecision-making positions in media organizations. Technologicaldevelopments have made women's images in media more complex andcontributed to unattainable social expectations surrounding women'sbeauty and abilities. However, it also noted that women and mediamonitoring groups have made some contributions in promoting positiveimages and role of women in media.

The 47th Session of the UN Commission on the Status of Womenin March 2003 affirmed the importance of women's access to andparticipation in the media and ICTs to women's empowerment. The CSWcalled on governments, United Nations bodies, international financialinstitutions and civil society to continue mainstreaming genderperspectives and ensuring women's full participation in nationalpolicies, legislation, programmes, and regulatory and technicalinstruments in all areas of communications. The session also lookedinto the growing sexual exploitation of women through the traditionalmedia and through new technologies and called for more research on theimpact of media and ICTs on women and girls.

In relation to the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS)that will be held in Geneva in December 2003 and in Tunis in 2005, theCommission recommended the integration of gender perspectives in allaspects of the Summit. It recognized the need to address inequalitiesthat prevent women from gaining equal access to opportunities andbenefits in media and the emerging knowledge and information society.One way to do this is to ensure the participation of women, genderequality experts and women information and communication technologiesexperts in the WSIS.

Media, the free market agenda and women's sexuality

Free market ideology and technological advancements intelecommunications have facilitated and compelled mergers among mediacorporations and have subsumed many small media companies. This has ledto a concentration of media ownership under big corporations withstrong market interests. Moreover, mergers and connections among globaland national media corporations have made it possible for media to swaypublic opinions and attitudes more than ever before.

Globalized media spreads homogenous images and sounds and, in turn,intensifies the alienation or "othering" of peoples—immigrants,indigenous groups, people with disabilities, older women, etc. Underthe hegemony of western culture and lifestyles, those who fall underthe category of the "other" –symbols, languages, religious practicesand customs– have become the localized exotic "primitives" foranthropologists to ponder upon. Even if at times, media may be able topresent diverse images and cultures of developing countries, they arepresented more as exotic and peculiar rather than as valid and aslegitimate as western counterparts.

Through the homogenization of peoples and cultures, corporations havemarketed their way to more societies and more into women's lives, bothin developing and developed countries. Homogenization serves the marketinterest in women. The market and media have intensified consumerismthrough advertisements that set the Aryan Barbie® doll beauty as theideal. Media has become an effective market instrument in creatingneeds to sell products that guarantee to mold women into the idyllicAryan beauty.

More than ever, women are appraised based on how they look and not ontheir abilities. The beautiful woman has fair and unblemished skin, isfull breasted, slim, active, among other ideal Aryan physical features,and as a plus, is a successful career woman. The market and the mediahave also shaped how women should conduct themselves within the home.The ideal woman is not only beautiful but also a perfect mother andwife—with the help of corporations, women are able to cook the perfectmeal for the family or whiten the husband's dirtiest white t-shirt.

At the same time, women's bodies are continually used to sellcigarettes, liquors, cars, male perfume and other male-identifiedproducts, as well magazines, newspapers and television programs.

However, there is a debate among feminists around women's sexuality inthe media. On the one hand, most feminists condemn the commodificationand objectification of women's bodies in media. This view holds thatwomen in pornography, as well as in prostitution, are victims/survivorsof sexual violence against women. Pornographic images of women aredegrading to all other women in general and contribute in maintainingwomen's subordination in society. On the other hand, some feministscontend that censoring women's sexualized images would further denywomen's reclaiming of their own sexualities, and therefore, women'scontrol over their own bodies. For them, pornography and sex work areto be fought against only if they are done against the woman's will.

With regards to sexual orientation, most media clearly projectheterosexuality as the norm and the 'normal'. "Others" –gays, lesbians,bisexuals, transgenders and queers– who sometimes make it to mainstreammedia are often presented more as peculiar beings who are exceptions tothe norm rather than as normal individuals who make up a large part ofsociety.

Globalization and fundamentalisms

The rise of fundamentalisms has often been linked to neo-liberalglobalization and western cultural homogenization. Women are caught inthe middle of neo-liberal market forces and conservative fundamentalistforces, the latter often appearing in the form of local strugglesagainst globalization and western economic, political and culturalimperialisms.

Fundamentalist tendencies can also be seen in a number of states, whichhave intensified control over media and have moved from regulation andfiltering of Internet content to outright banning of use of theInternet.

Feminist approaches to fundamentalism have become more nuanced anddeliberately careful. Feminist analyses have been exploring thefundamentalist dimensions of free market globalization, religiousfundamentalisms, nationalist fundamentalisms, and other fundamentalistforces and tendencies. One of the key components of feminist analysesrests on the framework of women's control over their own bodies: forexample, the free market exploits and profits over women's sexualitiesby shaping attitudes and creating needs around women's bodies;religious fundamentalists stifle and severely punish women's sexualexpressions and lifestyles.

Feminist strategies

While technological advancements and globalization of media havecreated or strengthened structural disadvantages for women, these sametrends have also opened more avenues for alternatives and networkingamong women. For instance, there has been renewed energy in buildingsolidarity among women's and social movements and in reviving positivecultural forms or expressions of the South.

Some forms of feminist strategies in advancing women's rights withinand through the media include efforts on the creation of alternativewomen's media, media literacy, creation of or collaboration withexisting media watch groups, media-related advocacies within and withgovernments and non-government organizations, and the integration ofgender perspectives in media codes of conduct.


Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR)recognizes media's role in facilitating the freedom of expression andopinion. It states: "Everyone has the right to the freedom of opinionand expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions withoutinterference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideasthrough any media and regardless of frontiers."

Article 19 (2) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR)states: "Everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression; thisright shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information andideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writingor in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of hischoice." In paragraph 3, the ICCPR allowed for temporary restrictionsthat may be placed by states upon media in "respect of the rights orreputations of others" and "for the protection of national security orof public order, or of public health or morals."

In Resolution 2003/42, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCHR)defended the right to freedom of opinion and expression of mediainstitutions and information professionals by warning against"unjustified invocation of national security, includingcounter-terrorism".

The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW)addressed all forms of discrimination that occurs within public andprivate spheres of women's lives. Specifically, it prohibits againstany form of sex role stereotyping and prejudice, exploitation andprostitution of women, and discrimination in public and political life,education and employment.

The 1995 Beijing Platform for Action section on women and mediaprovides the roadmap for women's advancement through women's access andparticipation to expression and decision-making in and through themedia and new technologies of communication. It also guides governmentsin promoting a balanced and non-stereotyped portrayal of women in themedia.

The 1993 Vienna Declaration and Programme of Actionaffirmed the importance of media in the promotion of human rights.Article 39 states: "Underlining the importance of objective,responsible and impartial information about human rights andhumanitarian issues, the World Conference on Human Rights encouragesthe increased involvement of the media, for whom freedom and protectionshould be guaranteed within the framework of national law."

The Durban Declaration and Programme of Actionthat came out of the World Conference Against Racism in Durban, SouthAfrica in September 2001 recognized the role of media in promotinghuman rights and in fighting against racism, racial discrimination,xenophobia and related forms of intolerance.

Paragraph 93 affirmed "all States should recognize the importance ofcommunity media that give a voice to victims of racism, racialdiscrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance."

Paragraph 117 called on States "to commit financial resources toanti-racism education and to media campaigns promoting the values ofacceptance, tolerance, diversity and respect for the cultures of allindigenous peoples living within their national borders. In particular,States should promote an accurate understanding of the histories andcultures of indigenous peoples."

Paragraphs 140 to 147 focused on "Information, communication and themedia, including new technologies." This section called on States tocome up with concrete measures to encourage marginalized communities'access to the mainstream and alternative media, promote the developmentof an ethical code of conduct and self-regulatory measures andpolicies, "encourage the media to avoid stereotyping based on racism,racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance..." andencourage diversity among workers of media organizations.


  • The media promotes and reflects the current mainstream culture'sstandards for body shape or size and importance of beauty. The mediareflect images of thinness and link this image to other symbols ofprestige, happiness, love and success for women. ( About-Face.org)
  • Barbie®, a mannequin and a supermodel, doesn't have the correctproportions to be an actual person. If a woman actually had theproportions of an average mannequin she wouldn't be healthy enough tohave her period each month. ( Girls’ Pipeline to Power: Report on the Beijing Plus Five).In the United States, 90 percent of all girls ages 3-11 have a Barbie®doll, an early role model with a figure that is unattainable in reallife. ( About-Face.org)
  • In the United States, an analysis of the evening news programs in2002 showed an average percentage of 14 percent female protagonists,compared to 86 percent males. National Security Advisor CondoleezzaRice led the top 10 with 45 appearances, followed by Senator HillaryClinton (27) and the First Lady, Laura Bush (20). (Sheila Gibbons,Media Report To Women)

On women working within media, worldwide statistics by the International Women's Media Foundation, 2001 (IWMF)

  • The overall number of women journalists employed in the mediaaround the world has decreased by 2 percent in the last five years,according to a study by the World Association for Christian Communication. Today, women are 41 percent of working journalists; they were 43 percent in 1995.
  • In the 1995 report by Margaret Gallagher for UNESCO, women are nota significant part of the media workforce. In Asia women are 21 percentof the total media workforce. In Latin America they are 25 percent. InSouthern Africa they are 27 percent. In Western Europe and the UnitedStates they are 35 percent. Worldwide, women are 79 percent of allpart-time workers in the news media. (An Unfinished Story: GenderPatterns in Media Employment, Paris: UNESCO, 1995)
  • According to the Gallagher report, in Japan, women are only 8percent of media employees; in India and Malawi, they are 12 percent;and in Argentina and Mozambique, women are 16 percent of the mediaworkforce. In Africa, women are 8 percent of broadcasting managers and14 percent of managers in the print media. In Latin America, thefigures are 21 percent for broadcasting and 16 percent for print.
  • The Radio-Television News Directors Association in the United States reports that women are 24 percent of news directors in television and 20 percent of those in radio. The American Society of Newspaper Editors reports that women are only 34 percent of newsroom supervisors in the United States.
  • A majority (nearly 60 percent) of the women journalists from aroundthe world who responded to a 1997 IWMF survey said that not even oneout of 10 decision-makers in their companies were women. The figure waseven higher (79 percent) for respondents from Asia.

(Source: "Where Women Stand",from the booklet "Leading in a Different Language: Will Women Changethe News Media?" International Women's Media Foundation, 2001)

Temporarily available at http://www.whrnet.org/docs/issue-media.html

Source: Women’s Human Rights Net

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January 21, 2014
Categories:  Research

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