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Impact of COVID19 on East African Women Journalists

This study was supported by UNESCO’s International Programme for the Development of Communication.

Executive Summary

The threat posed by coronavirus has propelled journalists to the frontline as information purveyors to a world struggling to come to terms with the pandemic and its effects. Despite their central role in this period, reporters, editors, and other media workers are also grappling with the impacts of the pandemic on their lives and work. This study sought to explore how women journalists in East Africa are experiencing the changes occasioned by the pandemic.

This was a mixed study design incorporating an online survey and online focus group discussions from women in Rwanda, South Sudan, Tanzania, Uganda and Kenya working in a variety of media outlets. Findings indicate women journalists were hard-hit economically with 52% of 108 respondents, reporting they had been put on unpaid leave. Work has moved online with 69.4% working online but this adds to the financial strain since 62%t of those surveyed said they have to pay for the data costs out of their own pockets. In addition, working from home was unsettling in the home environment as they had to juggle with work and home demands at the same time and securing a space for working posed a challenge for many.

Sexual harassment was not a problem during this period for 61.4% of the respondents due to less physical proximity as a result of COVID-19. Conversely, online harassment had gone up as reported by 63.9%. Some women journalists(43.5%) did not have employer-supplied protective gear. A majority, 69.7%, reported elevated levels of stress and worry over their welfare, and almost half, 46.3%, reported not having employer provided psychosocial support.

The threat posed by coronavirus has propelled journalists to the frontline as information purveyors to a world struggling to come to terms with the pandemic and its effects. Despite their central role in this period, reporters, editors, and other media workers are also grappling with the impacts of the pandemic on their lives and work. This study sought to explore how women journalists in East Africa are experiencing the changes occasioned by the pandemic.

This was a mixed study design incorporating an online survey and online focus group discussions from women in Rwanda, South Sudan, Tanzania, Uganda and Kenya working in a variety of media outlets. Findings indicate women journalists were hard-hit economically with 52% of 108 respondents, reporting they had been put on unpaid leave. Work has moved online with 69.4% working online but this adds to the financial strain since 62%t of those surveyed said they have to pay for the data costs out of their own pockets. In addition, working from home was unsettling in the home environment as they had to juggle with work and home demands at the same time and securing a space for working posed a challenge for many.

Sexual harassment was not a problem during this period for 61.4% of the respondents due to less physical proximity as a result of COVID-19. Conversely, online harassment had gone up as reported by 63.9%. Some women journalists(43.5%) did not have employer-supplied protective gear. A majority, 69.7%, reported elevated levels of stress and worry over their welfare, and almost half, 46.3%, reported not having employer provided psychosocial support.

Introduction

The emergence of COVID-19 as a serious respiratory illness with global spread is thrusting health journalism to the forefront as populations grapple with its impact on their communities and families. Wall-to-wall coverage of the pandemic is becoming the norm in global and local news.

While in East Africa, the first cases of the disease were reported in March, the rapidly increasing new cases have given impetus to increased health coverage.

Women, in general, are disproportionately affected by COVID-19 because they make up the bulk of healthcare workers, especially as nurses, community health workers and caregivers.

Women journalists are on the frontlines, along with their male counterparts, witnessing how this virus is ravaging communities and telling these stories in online, broadcast media and print media. At the same time, they are grappling with what these changes mean to them professionally and personally as organizations take measures to mitigate against the financial impact of the pandemic.

A global study carried out by International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) in April 2020, shows COVID-19 has led to pay cuts, job losses, lost revenue, lost commissions and poor working conditions for two-thirds of journalists surveyed. The study further showed that women journalists had higher levels of stress related to COVID-19 despite the fact that their working conditions have changed less than those of men (IFJ, 2020). Of those surveyed, 7.4% of women had lost their jobs as opposed to 6.5% of male journalists. Women also reported higher degrees of stress and anxiety (IFJ, 2020). While the insights of such a global study are valuable, there is still a need for regional studies due to the wide array of differences in conditions in various parts of the world.

This makes this study on East African women journalists important in understanding the impact of the pandemic on them. The study is guided by the following research questions:

How has the pandemic impacted the status of women journalists in East Africa?
How has the pandemic changed the working conditions and practices for these women?
What challenges are East African women journalists facing during the pandemic?

This was a mixed-methods study that incorporated a questionnaire and a focus group discussion. The questionnaire was sent to various media women associations across East Africa. These included Association of Media Women in Kenya (AMWIK), Uganda Media Women Association (UMWA), Association of Media Women in Southern Sudan (AMWISS), Tanzania Media Women’s Association (TAMWA), UNESCO Regional Office Ethiopia, South Sudan’s Female Journalists Network (FJN), Union of Journalists of South Sudan (UJOSS), and Association of Rwandese Female Journalists (ARFEM).

Key findings
Based on analysis of the data from the survey and the focus group discussions:

A staggering 63% of respondents said their jobs had been affected during the COVID-19 pandemic. Most respondents reported being placed on unpaid leave at 52%, whilst a further 11% lost their jobs. Only 27% said their jobs were unaffected. 

The Other category is made up of several individual responses that reported an increase in workload, increase in work hours, production put on hold, working on a volunteer basis among others.

  • A majority of respondents feel insecure in their jobs at 49.1%, with 32.4% feeling somewhat less secure. Combined, it adds up to a whopping 81.5 %.  Only 10.2% opted for no change in their level of job security, while 4.6% feel more secure and only 3.7% feel very secure.
  • Slightly more than half (50.9%) of respondents expressed fear over their well-being. A few, 11.3%, have tried to negotiate to reduce their field assignments, 12.3% have declined field assignments on account of concerns over their well-being and 19.8% do not harbor concerns about fieldwork.
  • Working from home, also called ‘remote working’, is proving to be expensive for journalists with 62% paying for their data costs. Just over a third, 32.4%, have had to pay for equipment costs, 58.3% work-related calling costs, as well as 32.4% paying for video-conferencing services.
  • To balance home and work life, respondents did more collaborative work (43.7%), worked after children went to sleep, for 22.3 % nothing had changed. Another 22.3% opted for less demanding assignments, 15.5 % relied on spousal assistance while 10.7% relied on domestic workers.
  • Majority of women are worried about their well-being and that of their families (69.4%) with 39.9% feel
    ing optimistic about the future. Over a third (36.1%) reported experiencing feelings of despair as well as burnout (36.1%).
  • Most women (46.3%) reported receiving no support from the employer, but forms of employer-provided psycho-social support included counselling support (24.1%), time off (20.4%) and a little bit of training on mental health (13%).
  • Just over a third (35.2%) agreed they have the requisite digital skills for remote working. Neutral responses accounted for 37% – which was curious because one should be able to gauge their capacities one way or the other. Over 18% were strongly confident about their digital skills, with 8.3% not confident about their online skills.

Recommendations

Media organizations need safeguarding policies to protect women from harm and these need to be made the industry gold standard rather than individual initiatives by individual media establishments. Regulatory agencies must require this as part of the licensing procedures.

Gender policies, recognizing the need for work-life balance for women and men in the media need to be enacted.  The whole human person as a functioning being needs to be recognized not just their work output ensuring dignified work.

Women journalists’ associations need to be strengthened to provide psychosocial and legal support for members experiencing mental health challenges and sexual harassment. Clearly with declining staff jobs, women will need to be organized and to have institutional support as they operate from as free agents in the open market negotiating agreements and contracts with various media houses and other agencies.

Women journalists in the region need training in digital skills, especially the utilization of apps that will enable them to produce content without depending on equipment from media organizations. 

They need to learn how to build their personal brands online and how to disseminate content on different platforms so they can expand their visibility beyond their working stations and reach broader audiences.

Basic equipment still a need such as computers and good quality smartphones are require to give these women professional tools and independence in doing their work. Given the precarity of work for these women, entrepreneurial skills in journalism are solely so they do not feel they have to work for free for their employers in the hope of being recalled but have a chance to market their work regionally and internationally.

Digital security training to avert online violence and to keep the women secure in their interactions with sources.  This would help women to be more inclined to operate from the digital spaces. East African women need to be networked to leverage their skills, work collaboratively and strengthen sisterhood within a community of professionals. A virtual resource centre linking these women with information on improving their craft and opportunities for paid work would be useful for providing additional income streams.

Acknowledgement

We are grateful for the support of United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), within the framework of the International Programmee for the Development of Communication (IPDC). We are also indebted to the various media women associations that helped to identify participants. Namely: Association of Media Women in Kenya (AMWIK), Kenya Community Media Network (KCOMNET), Kenya Correspondents Association (KCA), Kenya Union of Journalists (KUJ), Uganda Media Women Association (UMWA), Uganda Journalists Association (UJA), Health Journalists Network in Uganda (HEJNU), Tanzania Media Women’s Association (TAMWA), Female Journalists Network (FJN) in South Sudan, Association of Media Women in Southern Sudan (AMWISS), Union of Journalists of South Sudan (UJOSS), UNESCO Regional Office Ethiopia, and Association of Rwandese Female Journalists (ARFEM). Finally, we thank all the women who shared their stories with us by responding generously to the questionnaire and focus group discussions.

The study was carried out by a research consultant, Dr. Dorothy Njoroge, for African Women in Media.

Dr. Njoroge is an Assistant Professor of Development and Corporate Communication and Acting Head of Department, Journalism and Corporate Communications at United States International University-Africa. She chairs the board of the Association of Media Women in Kenya (AMWIK) and the International Communication Association (ICA) Feminist Division International Liaison.


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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.