Missed opportunities to reduce violence against women and girls: how the Ghanaian media is falling short

The media is a key stakeholder in helping preventing violence against women and girls (VAWG) through responsible and informative reporting of the issues and incidents. New research published in BMC Women's Health explores Ghanaian media coverage on this topic, an important step due to a gap in the literature on low- and middle-income countries where VAWG is endemic.

Worldwide, 1 in 3 women experience some form of gender-related violence.  Exposure to intimate partner violence (IPV) doubles a woman’s risk of depression and alcoholism and can have an impact on her risk of AIDS and other sexually transmitted infections and on her children’s health.

In its report on prevention of violence against women and girls (VAWG), the UN Commission on the Status of Women named many stakeholders in prevention efforts.  Among these are mass and new media, which play a big part in contributing to and maintaining gender stereotypes that can lead to cultures of violence and victim-blaming.

In order for media to play a role in preventing VAWG, we must first understand how VAWG is currently reported.  A study published today in BMC Women’s Health used frame analysis to examine representation of VAWG in Ghanaian media.  Lead author Dr. Ebenezer Owusu-Addo of the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science & Technology, Ghana explains the reasons for doing this study:

“The media has been identified as one of the key stakeholders that could help prevent VAWG through responsible news coverage that informs the public about the causes and effects of VAWG. However, to date, studies conducted on media coverage of VAWG have largely focused on high-income country settings such as the US, Australia, United Kingdom and Canada, leaving a major gap in the literature regarding media coverage of the issue in low- and middle-income country settings where VAWG is endemic. In this study, we examined how VAWG in Ghana, a lower-middle-income country, is framed by the media, and the implications of this for health promotion.”

What did the coverage look like?

In examining 48 news articles, Dr. Owusu-Addo and colleagues found that most reported incidents were covered only by a single, short article without any in-depth reporting.  The vast majority of the articles, 44 out of the 48, framed VAWG as individual incidents with no discussion of the broader social context.

Defining the scope of the problem, as the authors have done here, is the first step in reducing VAGW …

The fact that 80% of the incidents examined in this study were forms of IPV, perpetrated by a spouse, fiancé, or other intimate partner, stems from prevailing attitudes in which “… the typical Ghanaian family is still a patriarchal institution. Currently, attitudes in Ghana about VAWG include men considering it a marital right to control and discipline their wives, and perceived culpability of women and girls for acts of violence meted out against them,” says Dr. Owusu-Addo.

He continues, “The most prevalent attitudes that maintain the status quo include harmful social norms arising from gendered culture which sees women and girls as subordinate to men and boys, respectively. For instance, married men are perceived to have unreserved sexual access to their wives, leading to various forms of sexual assaults against women.”

Other problematic trends identified in the studied articles included normalizing incidents of VAWG as commonplace, coverage that focused on the perpetrator as the subject and victim/survivor as the object of the news story, exoneration of perpetrators, and victim blaming.  These are largely comparable to studies conducted in high-income countries, suggesting that initiatives to change these trends could work across multiple settings.

Changing media coverage

When asked how the media could promote social change and support VAWG prevention initiatives, Dr. Owsu-Addo suggested that news coverage could “thematically frame VAWG by focusing on social construction of the issue, challenging gender/social norms that are inimical to prevention efforts, raising awareness about support services available to victims, and eliciting political will for investment of resources for health promotion interventions focusing on prevention of VAWG.”

He adds that “the ideal news coverage of VAWG that would promote social change and contribute to VAWG prevention efforts moves beyond primary sources of information such as perpetrators and criminal justice officials (which often lead to victim blaming) to utilizing the perspectives of VAWG experts/advocates and providing statistics which help contextualize and frame the issue thematically.”

Defining the scope of the problem, as the authors have done here, is the first step in reducing VAGW, which will have to be a joint effort by many stakeholders including policy makers, health professionals, journalists and advocates.

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