Roselyne Sachiti Features, Health and Society Editor
Today, Zimbabwe joins the world in celebrating the International Day of the Girl Child.
Celebrated every October 11, since 2012, the day aims to highlight and address the needs and challenges girls face, while promoting girls’ empowerment and the fulfillment of their human rights.
This year’s global theme is; “GirlForce: Unscripted and Unstoppable”.
Under this year’s theme, girls will celebrate achievements by, with and for girls since the adoption of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action.
According to the United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef) in nearly 25 years, more girls move from dreaming to achieving. More girls today are attending and completing school, fewer are getting married or becoming mothers while still children, and more are gaining the skills they need to excel in the future world of work.
Unicef also says girls are breaking boundaries and barriers posed by stereotypes and exclusion, including those directed at children with disabilities and those living in marginalised communities.
As entrepreneurs, innovators and initiators of global movements, girls are creating a world that is relevant for them and future generations.
However, despite the achievements, the day also comes at a time some marginalised girls and young women face challenges that include access to sanitary pads as a result of high prices.
Some girls and young women also face challenges in accessing sexual and reproductive and health and rights.
In some societies, girls still carry the burden of early and forced marriages, meaning they drop out of school and may never have a chance to return if no reintegration opportunities are put before them.
According to Zimbabwe’s Multiple Indicator Cluster Survey (MICS) 2014, among women aged 15-49 years, about one in 20 (five percent) were married before age 15 and among women aged 20-49 years, about three (32,8 percent) were married before age 18.
Other girls are forced by their families to drop out of school to become tokens of appeasing avenging spirits, entering into early marriages and falling pregnant as young as 15.
Other causes of adolescent pregnancies include sexual exploitation and abuse, rape, lack of information about sexuality and reproduction, and lack of access to family planning services and modern contraception.
Despite the work by Government and its development partners, the list of challenges is long and the media, and society can also contribute to put an end to them.
This year’s International Day of the Girl Child also comes at a time Plan International released a State of the World Report called #RewriteHerStory challenging stereotypes, beliefs and attitudes reinforced by media and entertainment so that girls get equal and rewrite their stories.
The report by the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media at Mount Saint Mary’s University and Plan International, is the second phase of a two-part research project commissioned as an in-depth and ambitious look at female leadership.
In several ways, the research makes sad reading as it spells out clearly that girls and women, as citizens and certainly as leaders, are still not seen as equal to boys and men.
The key research component, and the backbone of this report, is an analysis by the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media of the 56 top-grossing films from across 20 countries, Zimbabwe included.
Key findings show that girls and young women are influenced by what they see on screen.
The research found out how the underlying messages of the films analysed have changed little for decades: male characters dominate the storylines; women leaders, where they do exist, may be portrayed as intelligent, likeable and effective, but they are also sexualised and objectified; female leadership is rare and at national level women leaders are not up to the job.
The overall make-up of the characters in the 2018 top-grossing films analysed reflect the films’ producers rather than their audience: they are white, male and middle-class.
Three overarching objectives emerged from the research.
To be it, they must see it.
The first call to action is to make stories about female leadership visible and normal. The report points out that stories need to encourage young women’s aspirations and ambitions, not undermine them.
Stop the sexualisation and objectification of women and girls on screen and ensure that content doesn’t discriminate or reinforce negative stereotypes and behaviour
The research suggests funding female filmmakers, programme makers and content producers and investment of more time and money in women and girls as storytellers while addressing harassment and discrimination in the workplace to encourage girls and women into key positions in the media industry.
Governments are also urged to partner with media bodies and civil society to run public campaigns that promote and increase the number of women leaders and the visibility of women’s leadership in the media industries, sending the clear message that women and girls belong in all spaces and places of power.
Furthermore, the research calls for the need to reaffirm and accelerate action on existing commitments pertaining to girls and women, the media and equal representation as outlined in the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action in 1995.
“There is much more work to be done: ending the use of degrading and inferior portrayals of women and girls; promoting gender equality and women’s leadership, and increasing the participation of women in decision-making spaces within media industries,” the research further points out.
It also calls for the introduction, monitoring and enforcement of legislation around anti-gender discrimination, harassment and diversity in the workplace, to address why it is often a hostile environment for women.
In the report, governments are also called upon to encourage content creators to depict the workplace as a positive place for women and female leadership. One such way, the report suggests, is to make funding to public and private media bodies dependent on the uptake of diversity standards, as with the British Film Institute in the UK, and encourage more funding be earmarked for the creation of content that celebrates diversity, promotes gender equality and encourages younger voices in storytelling.
Most important, according to the report, is for governments to understand the role of education in preparing girls and young women to have future careers as leaders and storytellers in media industries.
This can be done by ensuring subjects such as the creative arts and media literacy are part of national curricula in schools and in non-formal settings.
If anything, investments in educational materials that do not promote gender stereotypes, but show girls and women in positions of authority can bring positive change.
Governments can also work with media bodies to drive increased and diverse representation within production teams including apprenticeship and mentoring schemes, as the report further explains.
Media bodies are encouraged to set diversity and inclusion targets and key actions that drive increased and diverse representation both on screen and behind it, including apprenticeship and mentoring schemes for younger women.
They should, according to the report, endorse and support champions within the media industry, especially those who are seen as role models by girls, young women and other marginalised groups, to influence wider recognition of representation issues in the industry and public arena.
It is also important for media organisations to take up self-regulatory measures such as gender audits and codes of conduct on all productions in order to: address discrimination and harassment in the workplace; the lack of diversity in crew, cast and script; the negative portrayals of women leaders and the sexual objectification of women and girls, within scripts and other media content.
The media should also create awards and other incentives to share best practice in fostering women’s leadership in the media industries and celebrate women storytellers from a diversity of backgrounds.
The report further suggests that the media should regularly consult with girls and young women as consumers in order to produce the different stories they are asking to see on platforms that are accessible and favoured by them.
“Ensure that films and other entertainment content produced and directed by women have production and marketing budgets equal to those of male filmmakers and creators.”
The International Day of the Girl Child also comes just one month before Zimbabwe participates at the 25th International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD25). At the 1994 Cairo meeting, Zimbabwe was one of the 179 governments that adopted a revolutionary Programme of Action (POA) and called for women’s reproductive health and rights to take centre stage in national and global development efforts.
The Cairo meeting also brought out the link between reproductive health and women’s empowerment and how the two are necessary for the advancement of society.