These two women spearheaded gender-sensitive reporting in Namibia

by Lisa Ossenbrink
Jun 22, 2021 in Specialized Topics

In the early 2000s, two women in Namibia revolutionized journalism education and gender awareness in the country when they launched a student-run newspaper that would become instrumental in promoting women’s voices. 

Emily Brown, an academic from the Cape Flats, and Sarry Xoagus-Eises, a freedom fighter-turned-journalist, couldn’t have done it alone: both the Polytechnic of Namibia, now known as Namibian University of Science and Technology, and Genderlinks, a transnational NGO promoting women’s rights, strengthened their efforts. 

Launching a student newsroom with a gender reporting focus

After arriving in Namibia in 1992 from South Africa, Brown became a fiery force of feminism. In charge of the media technology department at the Polytechnic of Namibia, Brown felt it was illogical to teach journalism students in theory only — so she founded a student newsroom called “Echoes.” Her primary goal was to instill in her student journalists an understanding and skill for incorporating gender in their reporting. 

“Just because I’m a woman, doesn’t mean I’m gender-aware. Only training can make the difference,” she said. If someone thought gender was about women only, that was problematic; this was Brown’s approach. 

Integrating a gender focus into reporting was important for the student journalists because, often, issues that affected women disproportionately would not be covered in the news as much as others. As a result, they were often not properly represented. A 2005 report issued by Genderlinks and the Polytechnic of Namibia found that the audience resonated better with news stories if the voices and ideas of women were shared more often, and women weren’t objectified or presented in a stereotypical manner. 

“I would always tell my students, when having to mainstream gender, always ask yourself: ‘How does this issue affect men? How does it affect women?’ Brown explained.

Former student Emce Erastus said that Brown was more than just a lecturer to her and other students. “Her advocacy on gender equality went beyond the classroom and she practiced what she preached by giving opportunities to women and queer people at the Polytechnic. Echoes produced gender-sensitive reporters because of her."

Most students that were part of Echoes continue to work as journalists or media professionals today.

[Read more: Countering gender stereotyping in the news media]

Running the newsroom

Because of limited resources, Brown decided to admit only 30 students per year to the journalism program. This meant that every student could have their own work station as well as access to radio studios and cameras for photography and filming. 

“Managing a student newsroom wasn’t simple. Equipment such as Apple Mac computers were needed, a student editor had to be appointed, printing facilities and cameras had to be acquired. All of this amounted to budgets, proposal writing and partnerships, let alone securing space on campus for such an initiative,” she said.

Before, journalism education in Namibia had been purely theoretical. Not every student had access to the equipment that they would be required to use in most practical positions. Without internships, too, they might leave university without ever having seen a newsroom from the inside. 

On top of this, journalists were more likely to cover issues without considering how they might affect women. If a reporter were to write a story about access to sanitization, for instance, they could easily forget the dangers this posed for women, in particular. 

The first publication the student newsroom produced was the newspaper, also called “Echoes.” What Brown needed next were other organizations willing to collaborate with Echoes, in order to organize projects and carve out work placements for her students to gain more practical experience.

[Read more: The case for a gender editor]

Collaborating with Genderlinks 

Brown met Xoagus-Eises when she was working at the Parliamentary Forum. Brown was always looking for organizations where her students could intern. The Parliamentary Forum, which had a radio station that Xoagus-Eises headed, was one of them. 

When Xoagus-Eises later began working at Genderlinks, Brown continued to pursue the similar vision and set of values they shared. Working together with the organization seemed only logical. Through a partnership with Genderlinks, students were able to produce critical research around gender representation in the media.

In addition, one project that Xoagus-Eises managed was the annual Namibia Gender and Media Summit. As the Polytechnic of Namibia served as host of the summit,  journalism students were granted an opportunity to produce content about it for the student newspaper. Through the annual summits on gender and media as well as the Gender and Media Progress study, Genderlinks strived to promote the voices of ordinary people, especially those of women, through the press. 

A further collaboration between Genderlinks, Echoes and The Namibian newspaper had students report stories in areas of the country not usually covered by the mainstream media. The students would conduct focus groups to determine the primary issues people in these regions faced. They would then turn them into stories. 

This kind of reporting proved valuable. Local politicians, for example, would buy the latest editions of Echoes to read up on the issues facing their local communities.

Genderlinks celebrated its 20th birthday in March, making it one of the oldest organizations fighting for gender equality across the Southern African Development Community

Here are some takeaways for newsrooms and media organizations around the world that train student journalists and work to incorporate gender in reporting.

  • You can’t teach journalism without giving students practical experience
  • Collaborating with other journalism institutions is key 
  • Issues can affect men and women differently: reporting should show this!
  • Reporting from the ground is essential to promote the voices of ordinary people

Lisa Ossenbrink is a British-German multimedia journalist who loves to write about people and power in Europe and Southern Africa, as well as the relations between the two continents.

Photo by Andrew Ridley on Unsplash.