Empowering Women, One Voice at a Time

Mavic Cabrera-Balleza coordinates the International Women's Tribune Centre's human security, human rights and peace building programme. Mavic is the president of the World Association of Community Radio Broadcasters (AMARC) - Women's International Network. She is also a board member of the Asian Communication Network and a member of the Oversight Panel for UNDP's Information Disclosure Policy.

Tell me how the IWTC got started.

The International Women's Tribune Centre was born out of the First World Conference on Women in Mexico City in 1975. That conference was a galvanizing event for women around the world. It showed the world that the women's movement was vibrant not only in North America but in the Global South as well; women were organizing and mobilizing around the world. It created a space that defined the existence of a global women's movement.

The Mexico City conference laid the groundwork for global policy making for the advancement of women. It adopted a World Plan of Action, a document that offered guidelines for governments and the international community to follow for the next 10 years in pursuit of targets that focused on securing equal access for women to resources such as education, employment opportunities, political participation, health services, housing, nutrition and family planning.

The organizers and participants at the conference realized that the energy and momentum generated from the conference had to be maintained, or even increased. There was also a pressing need to ensure that women are fairly and equally represented and are actively participating in global policy making. There was a need to encourage and assist women and women's projects, particularly in developing countries, in their efforts to achieve the objectives of the International Women's Year World Plan of Action. There was a need for a centre to do just that.

What are some of the bigger issues affecting women around the world?

An overarching issue is still violence against women. Women are subjected to various forms of violence: domestic violence, rape, sexual harassment in all settings. However, I would like to speak to sexual and gender-based violence in conflict and post-conflict situations as that is the focus of our work at IWTC. Conflict and post-conflict violence bring about distinct forms of violence against women. The general breakdown of law and order increases the incidence of all forms of violence. Women's bodies are used as weapons of war; mass rape becomes a deliberate strategy of genocide. Women in targeted ethnic and religious groups also become more vulnerable. Women in refugee and internally-displaced people's camps are also at great risk because of the lack of protection and attention to women's special needs, including those that are as simple and practical as separate toilets and well-lit physical surroundings. The breakdown of judicial systems, social infrastructures and failure to deliver social services, including health and education in conflict and post-conflict situations, aggravate the effect of violence against women.

The other issue that I want to emphasize is that while most of the victims of wars and post-conflict violence are women, women are taking action to end sexual and gender-based violence and resolve conflict in a just and peaceful manner. They have been at the forefront of peace building, conflict transformation and reconstruction. Therefore, women should not only be perceived as victims but arbitrators to avoiding conflict, and as decision makers.

Of course, another issue is poverty. Women's health including HIV-AIDS; issues with women and religion, women and their rights under the law, the treatment of women in the media and all these issues are interconnected. I know our time and space in this interview is limited but I must say, it's very difficult to see these issues in isolation.

I've come across the term "feminized poverty." What does that mean?

The face of poverty is that of a woman. The majority of the nearly three billion people living on less than two dollars a day are women. Poor women are often denied access to credit, land and inheritance. Women also have the least opportunities to earn an income – the last to be hired and the first to be fired. Employers see them as less productive than their male counterparts because of their reproductive roles. Women's labour is often unrewarded and unrecognized. In cases that it is recognized, it is often undervalued.

Too much is asked and yet too little is given. Women are the caregivers of their families and their communities. If there's limited food or resources, women think of themselves last. A typical scene at a dinner table in a poor family's home is the woman apportioning limited food to the children and husband before herself. That's why there's a very high level of malnutrition among women and because of their reproductive role, there's an additional demand on women's bodies. That's why there's very high maternal and infant mortality rate in least developed countries. Women's health care and nutritional needs are not given priority. Women lack access to education and support services. Their opportunities to participate in decision-making on matters that affect their lives are also very limited.

When you speak of gender issues, how important is it to distinguish between the "Western World" and the so-called "Developing World?"

The problems are different but also the same in many ways. There is certainly a difference in terms of forms and scale. Those of us in the development circle like to say: "the Global South is also in the North" – meaning there are also poor people and there is also gender-based discrimination in the Western World as there are in the developing world.

I think it is always important to distinguish what solutions or courses of action apply to each context.

In many cases, there seem to be cultural and religious barriers to achieving a more equitable situation for women.

Yes, there are indeed socio-cultural barriers to achieving gender justice and gender equality. Because of this, it is important for women and men to really examine and understand their own culture; what is within their culture, what traditions are empowering and what traditions are not. Let me give you an example. When a certain religion recognizes the role of women in the family, I think we should consider that as a good part of that religion, a good part of the culture. However, if that religion or culture dictates the role of a woman, for example, as that of a sacrificing mother, a martyr wife, an obedient daughter, then I think there is a problem. It can be a peaceful, loving religion but the other question should be at what cost. Does that mean that women have to unquestioningly obey their husbands, fathers or male leaders all the time? Do they have to stop schooling, stop practicing their professions, follow dress codes, and so on?

Another example, in Uganda and other African countries, there is a prevalent dowry practice (also referred to as bride price). This makes women look like properties or commodities that men barter and negotiate. Also, if a religion and a culture imposes genital mutilation, that's obviously a problem.

So in any culture and religion, there are always ways to accommodate different beliefs and practices but these should not be at the expense of a woman's safety, her human rights and her legal rights.

Your organizations seem to promote the use of media, particularly community radio, to achieve your goals.

For many people outside of New York, Geneva and Vienna, where UN headquarters are, there is very little knowledge of UN policies that inevitably have an impact on people's lives. Let's take the UN Security Council Resolution 1325 as an example. This is a groundbreaking resolution. For the very first time, the most powerful structure within the United Nations, the Security Council, recognized the differential impact of conflict and post-conflict violence on women, and recognized the key role that women play in peace building, conflict resolution, conflict transformation and reconstruction. This resolution mandates all UN member states to implement its provisions at the national level. One of the provisions is for governments to ensure that women are at all levels of decision-making on peace and security issues. It's a huge step forward.

However, seven years after its adoption, only six countries have national action plans on 1325. There are many reasons why so many countries have not taken steps to implement the Resolution. But the primary one is the lack of awareness. There is no pressure coming from anywhere because a lot of people are not really aware of the Resolution. And I mean people at all levels, including those who have worked on peace and security issues for a long time.

So we raise people's awareness of 1325, particularly at the grassroots level, through various media, including print, the Internet and its related forms – e-mail, blogs, and so on, but we devote a lot of time, energy and resources to the use of radio.

Why radio more so than other media?

It remains to be the most accessible and affordable medium for developing countries. In Uganda, for example, there is about 85% to 90% penetration of radio. Almost every single household has a transistor radio. It's affordable, it's accessible and it uses local language. But the biggest reason we use radio is because it transcends literacy barriers. This is very important because literacy rate in conflict and post-conflict countries is very low and women make up a greater percentage of illiterate and semi-literate populations.

It's very democratic in that sense, isn't it?

It's very democratic and some people also refer to it as the "women's medium" because it doesn't require a dedicated time. Because of women's multiple roles and their never-ending chores, they don't have the time to sit in front of a TV. If they can read, they can probably get a local paper in their language but they still need the time to sit and read the paper. Whereas radio is portable, they can take it to the kitchen, to the laundry area, almost anywhere. It's a choice medium for most women, so we respect that and we encourage the use of community radio because it makes use of local languages and dialects. Moreover, in most areas, the community radio is owned by the people within that community. It varies from place to place, but usually commercial interests don't dominate in producing programs in community radio.

Does IWTC actively encourage women to participate in their own community radio?

Very much so. Right now we're working on the production of a radio drama series – a soap opera in Uganda focusing on sexual and gender-based violence and how 1325 can be used to address those issues. IWTC is working with the Uganda Media Women's Association and Radio Apac, a community radio station in Northern Uganda. We're also working with community-based women's groups in the development of scripts as well as in the actual production. That's what we are doing right now in Uganda and we're hoping to replicate this project in Liberia.

Are these organizations that already exist and you help them to grow?

Most of the women's groups that we collaborate with are groups that are already established and their work is focused on peace and security issues. Again, taking Uganda as an example, we're working with four women's group from different districts. These organizations are working at providing support services to former abductees; young girls and boys who were abducted by the Lord's Resistance Army. They're helping them recover by providing counseling services and socio-economic projects. These groups already embrace the issues that IWTC works on – that is women's human rights, peace building and conflict resolution. In a way, we're helping them to grow because we're building their capacity to use the media, to reach broader audiences and to generate more support for their advocacy. We also support them in their network and movement building. In our recent workshop in Uganda for instance, we had women's organizations and media from Liberia. The workshop enabled both the Ugandan and Liberian groups to share strategies and experiences during and even after the workshop.

Beyond access to resources and equipment, what kind of obstacles would they typically be faced with?

Most women's organizations do not have the skills required to write and produce radio scripts. These are very specialized skills and we don't really intend for women to become media practitioners. Most women's organizations are already overstretched as it is. We train them in understanding how media works so that they can work effectively with them. We want them to understand the production process and the best use of media. We show them how media work so that they can package their information in such a way that the media will find it useful. .

We bring the media and the women's groups together in a dialogue for them to realize that each of them have specific roles to play. We encourage them to build networks to sustain the information flow on Resolution 1325 and other legal mechanisms useful to women. We also train mainstream media to look at issues from a gender perspective.

The media is obsessed with violence and fixates on those very masculine images of military actions and war. So we are also educating the media that there is another lens to use when they cover conflict or when they report about peace and security issues. A lens that will highlight women's role as decision makers and peace builders. So we bring them — the media and women's groups – together in a dialogue. For example, in a recent "1325 write shop" we organized, we brought them together to develop scripts and plan the production. So it's a partnership - they both own it and they both have their expertise to bring to the table.

Have you noticed commonalities in the type of community radio programming coming from different countries and cultures?

Yes, there are commonalities in terms of the issues that they are addressing. Looking at AMARC's experience, most of our members produce programs on reproductive rights and violence against women. However, the differences lie in the specific issues that confront women. For example, in Latin America and the Philippines, abortion is a big issue under reproductive rights. This is due to the influence of the Catholic Church. The same storylines will not come out in South Asia, for example, or in Muslim countries.

In the case of gender issues on community radio, who is listening? Is the audience only women or are men also tuned in? It varies, but both women and men listen. In fact, I would say that in some instances, there are more men listening because men have better access to the radio and this is another issue – especially in some parts of Africa. There is usually just one transistor radio in a household and when the husband leaves the house, he brings it with him. So even access to media is also a reflection of gender and power relations. Because of this, often women have less access to, and control of, the media.

What is your organization planning for March 8th, International Woman's Day?

It will be a big day for us, especially since we are launching our soap opera in different districts in Uganda. We also have a radio production to launch in Sierra Leone. We're having launches in those two countries, then we'll probably have a small gathering here in New York. We're looking at the possibility of putting the women in Uganda and Sierra Leone on a video conference or audio conference with women here in New York.

Also, the Women's International Network of AMARC is planning a broadcast campaign with contributors from all over the world. The programs generated in the campaign are made available on the website and every year, we produce around a specific theme. This year it will be financing for gender equality and women's empowerment.

Mavic, thank you very much for this interview and good luck with all your activities.

Thank you very much for the opportunity.