In countries emerging from conflict, places where literacy rates are low and internet access is limited, radio is still the most reliable way to get information. Through the efforts of organizations like Hirondelle U.S.A., radio is transforming the lives of women in these areas.
Women and girls are uniquely vulnerable in times of conflict. They are disproportionately more likely to have their schooling and economic activities interrupted and fall victim to gender violence, rape, unwanted pregnancy, and sexually transmitted infections. After conflicts, studies show that while women are underrepresented in the peace-building process, their participation is critical: They tend to steer negotiations toward human rights, health, and employment issues.
Radio gives women a platform to tell their stories and discuss sensitive topics. Anne Bennett, executive director and founder of Hirondelle U.S.A. and senior fellow at the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative, has spent years helping to establish and manage radio stations in Liberia, Sierra Leone, and South Sudan.
“The challenge for us is that we need to do good journalism, but also know how that fits into a theory of change in a society with a hugely disenfranchised population — people who feel powerless and have limited access to care," Bennett said.
Refinery29 sat down with Bennett to discuss the power of independent media, the challenges of building credibility, and the importance of helping women become voices of authority in their communities. That word, "empowerment," is thrown around in a lot of different contexts. What does it mean for women and girls in the places where you work? “We often use ‘empowerment’ to mean 'giving voice to the voiceless.' That always bothers me, because people already have a voice. What we’re really doing is helping individuals and communities articulate the things that are going to change their lives and providing a mechanism for that to be voiced.
“Even with limited education opportunities, the women and girls I work with are very savvy. They have a lot of information. Our role is helping them articulate that, so that they can be part of a bigger discussion — creating a conversation and grounding it in facts and reality.
“Empowerment is helping people articulate what’s important in their life and fully exercise the rights they’re imbued with as individuals. That might entail one thing in the U.S. and another in Guinea, but the commonality is taking charge of your rights: deciding when to have children, pursuing an education, having a career open to you, voting for a president — it’s giving you agency over your life.”
People rarely listen to the radio alone. They gather around it, it’s playing in taxis, in marketplaces. It’s really the first ‘social’ media.
What is the role of independent media in times of political conflict or humanitarian crisis? “What we’re trying to do is use media across many platforms as an agent of change. Media that are credible and have a lot of listeners can actually drive the agenda.
“One of the powers of radio is that it’s very low-cost and reaches people who are off the grid. In most of the countries where we work, under 10% of the population uses the internet. There’s usually just one shared television in the marketplace that shows championship football or Nigerian soap operas.
“Radio isn’t one-directional, either — it’s a bridge. If you’re in these communities, talking to people, and using the local language, your stories are coming from your listeners. Radio is incredibly powerful, because people can participate in it.
“One of the areas where we’ve been successful in reaching women is in local health clinics. We play our podcasts and they can actually copy these onto their phones and take them home and listen to them again.
“People rarely listen to the radio alone. They gather around it, it’s playing in taxis, in marketplaces. It’s really the first ‘social’ media.”
How do you go about building credibility and trust among your listeners? “Credibility is your bottom line: Without it, you have nothing. Before we start, we want to understand where people are getting their information and where the gaps are. We’re very concerned about who our listeners are. In Mali, we wanted to target women, but not just women. We created a network with the many community radios; their journalists train with us, we co-produce segments, and they can rebroadcast our programs.
“Credibility also depends on editorial choices. You’re credible when the population believes you’re telling the truth and are not biased. Biases can be very subtle, where rather than exploring the effects and the dynamics of a topic like female genital mutilation, you are telling people not to circumcise their daughters.
“Western media grapples with this in the same way. It’s hard when you’re talking about things like FGM [Female Genital Mutilation], which is a practice that, as an American mother, I find horrible; but within our rural communities and even our radios, maybe 90% of our female journalists have been circumcised. The way we cover those topics is extremely important.
“Credibility can change people’s minds. Rather than be overt and say, 'do this' or 'do that,' the way we’ve covered things has given people the information to make up their own minds.”
What are some of the issues that are most important to women in these communities? “Often, it’s very practical. We did a program in South Sudan called 'Solvers' and the audience would submit questions like, 'How do you apply for a university scholarship?' 'How do you register your land?' 'How do you open a bank account?' There are a lot of questions where people want to know 'what are my rights?'
“To find our topics, we need to do our research and understand the country. Our radios are locally run, but many of our journalists are university graduates and they’re often shocked when working with rural communities. There’s a huge gap there that can be as big as the gap that we feel as foreigners in a country. We train them to listen to people and ask the right questions. It needs to be organic, not just putting a microphone there and saying 'tell us about your life.' It’s understanding the context, conducting a good interview, and listening to people.”
What are some of the obstacles that you’ve faced in training women to become journalists in these regions? “In Conakry, Guinea, more than half of our trainees are women. We want our newsrooms to look like the societies they’re serving, but often that balance is very hard to achieve. In many places, girls are not told from the time they’re two that they can do whatever they want, that all the doors are open, sky’s the limit. We’re dealing with some pretty set social norms.
“Many of our journalists are faced with a lot of gender bias, outright propositioned, not called on in press conferences — all the things that American women journalists were facing 20 or 30 years ago. They’re really groundbreakers.
“Sometimes, crisis points can serve a purpose, helping marginalized communities gain agency. The social order is so disrupted that things change much more quickly than they do normally.
“When 14 million people are listening to a strong, confident young woman talk hard political news, it really [changes] their ideas about what women can do. Our journalists have become household names; we go up-country and people know Florence, Aruna, and Marie Louise. They’re great role models. Recruiting women and helping them move into positions of leadership really shifts the agenda.
“What we’re seeing in the media is part of a larger phenomenon for women in leadership. Many African countries have more women in parliament than America does in Congress. Certainly there are real barriers to exercising their rights in many countries, but we’re seeing the emergence of women leaders in many roles.”
Can you tell me about some of the stories that have been especially effective? “I recently got an email from the head of the Doctors Without Borders office in Bangui. The crisis had sort of spun out of control again on September 26, and they couldn’t drive anywhere because it was so dangerous. Every 30 minutes, we broadcast a message over Radio Ndeke Luka (which has huge listenership) saying, 'Let the teams work, don’t attack their vehicles, don’t loot their medical supplies.' He said that without that, they would not have been able to do their work...
“Last January, a French humanitarian worker named Claudia Priest was abducted in the Central African Republic; she said that while she was held, her kidnappers were listening to Radio Ndeke Luka. Not knowing she was listening, we were transmitting messages of courage, reporting on the abduction, and calling the country to dialogue and peace. She said those messages really kept her going.
“In Sierra Leone, we did an interview with a woman who was HIV-positive; she was married and probably contracted the virus through her husband. It was a powerful testimony on a very taboo and misunderstood topic — many people in the places where we work think HIV doesn’t exist." I remember being on a local bus in Sierra Leone and hearing a man say that “AIDS” stood for “American Idea to Discourage Sex." “Exactly. You will hear people say it was made up to get funds. In a deeply moving and articulate way, this woman described going from not knowing what HIV was to coming to terms with being HIV-positive. The people listening to that realize there’s a human face to HIV and hear practical information about getting tested. Those stories are really important.” Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.