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Digital archives can put the hidden work of women on record

When Nigerian journalist Angela Ulunma Agoawike was conducting research for her university project in the late 1980s, she had difficulties finding the information on women in politics. 

 “I visited two university libraries – Nsuka and Port Harcourt – but there was not much literature on women like Margaret Ekpo, a frontline politician in her time. Despite the involvement of women in Nigeria’s politics, spanning years, the bulk of information I got was from oral interviews I conducted to get a real sense of her political activities,” she told AWiM News.

Decades later, finding documents on African women, whether in media, in politics or in other professions, is still a challenge. Yet, when you switch on the TV, go the cinema, tune in to the radio, turn the pages of a newspaper or browse the internet, you have a good chance of encountering the exceptional work of women in media. Despite all the work they put out, a search of archives for African women in media often turns up short — a testament to the insidious institutional and socio-cultural factors that reinforce harmful gender stereotypes and severely impacts the experiences of women. 

“It is still a challenge finding documents when you are researching African women whether in the media, in politics, and other professions,” said Agoawike, the coordinator of Abuja-based think-tank Journalism & Development Seminars (JADESeminars).

Historical factors

Ruona J Meyer, the Africa Regional Manager for the Solutions Journalism Network, says that the main structural factors that have worked against archiving for women in the media landscape lie in history. Africa’s history was passed down mostly via oral tradition that did not have room for enduring documentation and archiving. 

“Documentation was done in the heads of those that retold their stories (the griots) and through literature written about such events. In this ethno-cultural way of doing things, women were not reckoned with, so most of the recollected stories were mostly of men,” she said.  

Moreover, adds Meyer, the books, writings and art of the day were fair game for colonialists seeking to conquer turf across the continent.  

“For apartheid proponents wanting to stop people from knowing what was happening, you had the burning down of physical repositories as well as the clampdown on languages, dances, folklore, and even religious practices (all of which I see as part of media) that should have been archived through daily use and performance,” said Meyer. 

“We then moved to a period where archiving was primarily left to government and tertiary institutions. In essence, we hardly have an archiving culture in African media. Costs and know-how mean the average newsroom does not treat its archives to the required filing or temperature standards. The broad consequences are that we continue to risk generations growing without easy access to the histories, humans, and incidents that shape their origins and by extension their present and future.” 

On a similar note, Agoawike reckons that media archiving in Africa has been a footnote on the documentation of Christianity on the continent.  

 “Take Nigeria for instance: The history of the media is closely related to Christianity – the need to communicate the comings and goings of Christian missionaries and their activities led to the establishment of the first newspaper – Iwe Iroyin. Preserving the story of the media really did not exist, except again, in the context of documenting the anti-colonial struggles and agitation the struggle for independence,” she says.  

Socio-cultural biases

When it comes to documenting the work of women, socio-cultural biases have proved to be a challenge. Veteran journalist and activist Regina Daka Osika, says that lack of effective government policies, the commercialisation of media institutions (including public ones), the trading of cash for professionalism and inadequate budget allocations, all play a major role in the lack of archiving for women. 

“Journalism used to be about your potential, capability, and hard work, but now, for-profit journalism is about how much money a journalist can bring into the coffers of media houses. Moreover, women have to work extra hard to get equal recognition. In this environment, there is little incentive to encourage the preservation of the history of journalism,” said Osika.

However, technology presents opportunities for women to change this. One of the many ways to address this lack of documentation of the activities of women is to digitally record the vigorous intervention of female journalists in the wider social and political issues of society. For these journalists, their concerns are not just their own; they reflect the priorities of society. It is easier to keep archives of journalistic content.  

“Many media operations have now gone digital. Computerised systems have taken over the world. Even in developing countries, the value of digitising the archives of media women cannot be overlooked. Women in the media cannot and should not be left behind. In fact, we should be at the forefront of digitisation,”  Kadilo Brown, ajournalist, author, and TV producer, told AWiM News. 

Moreover, African women in the media wield powerful tools – advocacy and lobbying. Female journalists in Africa with carefully-cultivated connections and influence can make the case for fostering digital archiving for women in the media. These archives can actually be reproduced in different storable formats so that researchers can have access to them. 

Value of digitisation

Meyer says that digitisation of media archives of African women has great value — particularly if and when done in a manner that is open to all.

“More importantly, digitising media archives of African women provides the chance for more gender-balanced news reports, academic research, and pushes more inclusivity, to the extent that we move away from whole historic events that do not mention women, much less African women. Thankfully, whether from Twitter threads, or Wikipedia entries, to newsroom archives and scholarly articles — we are slowly tracing our roots, as we curate those currently shaping the future,” she said.  

Agoawike, the coordinator of JADESeminars, believes that digitising the archives of African women in media would provide information for both media and national planning, to tackle the longstanding prejudices that hinder their progress. JADE Seminars, which was established in 2020 by journalists, is currently curating stories about women who have broken the glass ceiling in print media, to preserve the history of women’s journalism. The think-tank advocates for inclusiveness as a key indicator of archiving in media.  

Digitisation will allow for more attention to be paid to the activities of African women in the media, and so doing, make it easier for researchers to access such information for incorporation into the wider body of materials available for research and planning. If we have to incorporate the story of African women into the wider body of information, it is important to know about their activities and the roles they have played in the growth (and preservation) of media history and culture,” said Agoawike. 

“If the saying “teach a woman and you teach the nation” is anything to go by, then women in the media should take the lead in digitising their archives. The beauty of digitisation is the ease of accessibility, connectivity, manipulation, control, finesse, and efficiency,” she added.

Literary, creative and media archives centred on digitally-accessible tools and data ensure longevity, uniqueness and diversity of practitioners.

Agoawike, who is an advocate for gender parity in the African media landscape, says that while there are many women in media in Africa, their stories are being told by men. Moreover, recent research on that shows that even academics who write draw from available literature, which often glosses over women who have played important roles in media.  

We are working on a Women in Print Journalism book project, with the objective of documenting the strides of women in print media. The book will be in digital and non-digital formats,” she said. 

Looking for answers

The women interviewed for this piece say that the focus should be on learning how to pilot the African media landscape through the choppy cultural waters that are unfair to female journalists. This includes questions about the approach of digital archiving that would make this possible. Would more outreach and advocacy be the answer? Does the solution lie in providing the requisite training and education for African women in the media on the importance of digital archiving?  

Whatever the answer, African women in the media might need to accept imperfect strategies in the present while in pursuit of digital archiving goals that will be invaluable for generations to come. 

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DR. YEMISI AKINBOBOLA

C.E.O & Co-founder, AWiM

Dr Yemisi Akinbobola is an award-winning journalist, academic, consultant and co-founder of African Women in Media (AWiM). AWiM’s vision is that one-day African women will have equal access to representation in media. Joint winner of the CNN African Journalist Award 2016 (Sports Reporting), Yemisi ran her news website IQ4News between 2010-14.
Yemisi holds a PhD in Media and Cultural Studies from Birmingham City University, where she is a Senior Lecturer. She has published scholarly research on women’s rights, African feminism, and journalism and digital public spheres. She was Editorial Consultant for the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325 commemorative book titled “She Stands for Peace: 20 Years, 20 Journeys”, and currently hosts the book’s podcast.
She speaks regularly on issues relating to gender and media. In 2021 she was recognized as one of 100 Most Influential African Women.