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Women and Media: Progress and Issues
October 2003

By Carolina Rodriguez Bello, WHRnet

Human Rights Mechanisms
Facts and Figures
Additional Resources


The 1995 Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, China propelled international concern and action on the role of media in perpetuating women's subordination as well its importance in advancing women's rights. The Beijing Platform for Action (BPFA) gave an overview of problems and issues surrounding women and the media and spelled out specific strategies for governments, media organizations, non-government organizations and other civil society actors. It called for: a) women's increased participation in and access to media and new information and communication technologies (ICTs); b) promotion of a balanced and non-stereotyped representation of women in the media.

More than four years later, WomenWatch, an initiative of the United Nations to assess progress and obstacles on BPFA held an online-discussion. The discussion concluded that there have been few improvements in media portrayal of women both in advertising and news coverage. Women still scarcely occupy decision-making positions in media organizations. Technological developments have made women's images in media more complex and contributed to unattainable social expectations surrounding women's beauty and abilities. However, it also noted that women and media monitoring groups have made some contributions in promoting positive images and role of women in media.

The 47th Session of the UN Commission on the Status of Women in March 2003 affirmed the importance of women's access to and participation in the media and ICTs to women's empowerment. The CSW called on governments, United Nations bodies, international financial institutions and civil society to continue mainstreaming gender perspectives and ensuring women's full participation in national policies, legislation, programmes, and regulatory and technical instruments in all areas of communications. The session also looked into the growing sexual exploitation of women through the traditional media and through new technologies and called for more research on the impact of media and ICTs on women and girls.

In relation to the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) that will be held in Geneva in December 2003 and in Tunis in 2005, the Commission recommended the integration of gender perspectives in all aspects of the Summit. It recognized the need to address inequalities that prevent women from gaining equal access to opportunities and benefits in media and the emerging knowledge and information society. One way to do this is to ensure the participation of women, gender equality experts and women information and communication technologies experts in the WSIS.

Media, the free market agenda and women's sexuality

Free market ideology and technological advancements in telecommunications have facilitated and compelled mergers among media corporations and have subsumed many small media companies. This has led to a concentration of media ownership under big corporations with strong market interests. Moreover, mergers and connections among global and national media corporations have made it possible for media to sway public opinions and attitudes more than ever before.

Globalized media spreads homogenous images and sounds and, in turn, intensifies the alienation or "othering" of peoples—immigrants, indigenous groups, people with disabilities, older women, etc. Under the hegemony of western culture and lifestyles, those who fall under the category of the "other" –symbols, languages, religious practices and customs– have become the localized exotic "primitives" for anthropologists to ponder upon. Even if at times, media may be able to present diverse images and cultures of developing countries, they are presented more as exotic and peculiar rather than as valid and as legitimate as western counterparts.

Through the homogenization of peoples and cultures, corporations have marketed their way to more societies and more into women's lives, both in developing and developed countries. Homogenization serves the market interest in women. The market and media have intensified consumerism through advertisements that set the Aryan Barbie® doll beauty as the ideal. Media has become an effective market instrument in creating needs to sell products that guarantee to mold women into the idyllic Aryan beauty. More than ever, women are appraised based on how they look and not on their abilities. The beautiful woman has fair and unblemished skin, is full breasted, slim, active, among other ideal Aryan physical features, and as a plus, is a successful career woman. The market and the media have also shaped how women should conduct themselves within the home. The ideal woman is not only beautiful but also a perfect mother and wife—with the help of corporations, women are able to cook the perfect meal for the family or whiten the husband's dirtiest white t-shirt.

At the same time, women's bodies are continually used to sell cigarettes, liquors, cars, male perfume and other male-identified products, as well magazines, newspapers and television programs.

However, there is a debate among feminists around women's sexuality in the media. On the one hand, most feminists condemn the commodification and objectification of women's bodies in media. This view holds that women in pornography, as well as in prostitution, are victims/survivors of sexual violence against women. Pornographic images of women are degrading to all other women in general and contribute in maintaining women's subordination in society. On the other hand, some feminists contend that censoring women's sexualized images would further deny women's reclaiming of their own sexualities, and therefore, women's control over their own bodies. For them, pornography and sex work are to be fought against only if they are done against the woman's will.

With regards to sexual orientation, most media clearly project heterosexuality as the norm and the 'normal'. "Others" –gays, lesbians, bisexuals, transgenders and queers– who sometimes make it to mainstream media are often presented more as peculiar beings who are exceptions to the norm rather than as normal individuals who make up a large part of society.

Globalization and fundamentalisms

The rise of fundamentalisms has often been linked to neo-liberal globalization and western cultural homogenization. Women are caught in the middle of neo-liberal market forces and conservative fundamentalist forces, the latter often appearing in the form of local struggles against globalization and western economic, political and cultural imperialisms.

Fundamentalist tendencies can also be seen in a number of states, which have intensified control over media and have moved from regulation and filtering of Internet content to outright banning of use of the Internet.

Feminist approaches to fundamentalism have become more nuanced and deliberately careful. Feminist analyses have been exploring the fundamentalist dimensions of free market globalization, religious fundamentalisms, nationalist fundamentalisms, and other fundamentalist forces and tendencies. One of the key components of feminist analyses rests on the framework of women's control over their own bodies: for example, the free market exploits and profits over women's sexualities by shaping attitudes and creating needs around women's bodies; religious fundamentalists stifle and severely punish women's sexual expressions and lifestyles.

Feminist strategies

While technological advancements and globalization of media have created or strengthened structural disadvantages for women, these same trends have also opened more avenues for alternatives and networking among women. For instance, there has been renewed energy in building solidarity among women's and social movements and in reviving positive cultural forms or expressions of the South.

Some forms of feminist strategies in advancing women's rights within and through the media include efforts on the creation of alternative women's media, media literacy, creation of or collaboration with existing media watch groups, media-related advocacies within and with governments and non-government organizations, and the integration of gender perspectives in media codes of conduct.

Human Rights Mechanisms

Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) recognizes media's role in facilitating the freedom of expression and opinion. It states: "Everyone has the right to the freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers."

Article 19 (2) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) states: "Everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice." In paragraph 3, the ICCPR allowed for temporary restrictions that may be placed by states upon media in "respect of the rights or reputations of others" and "for the protection of national security or of public order, or of public health or morals."

In Resolution 2003/42, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCHR) defended the right to freedom of opinion and expression of media institutions and information professionals by warning against "unjustified invocation of national security, including counter-terrorism".

The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) addressed all forms of discrimination that occurs within public and private spheres of women's lives. Specifically, it prohibits against any form of sex role stereotyping and prejudice, exploitation and prostitution of women, and discrimination in public and political life, education and employment.

The 1995 Beijing Platform for Action section on women and media provides the roadmap for women's advancement through women's access and participation to expression and decision-making in and through the media and new technologies of communication. It also guides governments in promoting a balanced and non-stereotyped portrayal of women in the media.

The 1993 Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action affirmed the importance of media in the promotion of human rights. Article 39 states: "Underlining the importance of objective, responsible and impartial information about human rights and humanitarian issues, the World Conference on Human Rights encourages the increased involvement of the media, for whom freedom and protection should be guaranteed within the framework of national law."

The Durban Declaration and Programme of Action that came out of the World Conference Against Racism in Durban, South Africa in September 2001 recognized the role of media in promoting human rights and in fighting against racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related forms of intolerance. Paragraph 93 affirmed "all States should recognize the importance of community media that give a voice to victims of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance." Paragraph 117 called on States "to commit financial resources to anti-racism education and to media campaigns promoting the values of acceptance, tolerance, diversity and respect for the cultures of all indigenous peoples living within their national borders. In particular, States should promote an accurate understanding of the histories and cultures of indigenous peoples." Paragraphs 140 to 147 focused on "Information, communication and the media, including new technologies." This section called on States to come up with concrete measures to encourage marginalized communities' access to the mainstream and alternative media, promote the development of an ethical code of conduct and self-regulatory measures and policies, "encourage the media to avoid stereotyping based on racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance..." and encourage diversity among workers of media organizations.

Facts and Figures

  • The media promotes and reflects the current mainstream culture's standards for body shape or size and importance of beauty. The media reflect images of thinness and link this image to other symbols of prestige, happiness, love and success for women. (About-Face.org)
  • Barbie®, a mannequin and a supermodel, doesn't have the correct proportions to be an actual person. If a woman actually had the proportions of an average mannequin she wouldn't be healthy enough to have her period each month. (Girls’ Pipeline to Power: Report on the Beijing Plus Five). In the United States, 90 percent of all girls ages 3-11 have a Barbie® doll, an early role model with a figure that is unattainable in real life. (About-Face.org)
  • In the United States, an analysis of the evening news programs in 2002 showed an average percentage of 14 percent female protagonists, compared to 86 percent males. National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice led the top 10 with 45 appearances, followed by Senator Hillary Clinton (27) and the First Lady, Laura Bush (20). (Sheila Gibbons, Media Report To Women)

On women working within media, worldwide statistics by the International Women's Media Foundation, 2001 (IWMF)

  • The overall number of women journalists employed in the media around the world has decreased by 2 percent in the last five years, according to a study by the World Association for Christian Communication. Today, women are 41 percent of working journalists; they were 43 percent in 1995.
  • In the 1995 report by Margaret Gallagher for UNESCO, women are not a significant part of the media workforce. In Asia women are 21 percent of the total media workforce. In Latin America they are 25 percent. In Southern Africa they are 27 percent. In Western Europe and the United States they are 35 percent. Worldwide, women are 79 percent of all part-time workers in the news media. (An Unfinished Story: Gender Patterns in Media Employment, Paris: UNESCO, 1995)
  • According to the Gallagher report, in Japan, women are only 8 percent of media employees; in India and Malawi, they are 12 percent; and in Argentina and Mozambique, women are 16 percent of the media workforce. In Africa, women are 8 percent of broadcasting managers and 14 percent of managers in the print media. In Latin America, the figures are 21 percent for broadcasting and 16 percent for print.
  • A majority (nearly 60 percent) of the women journalists from around the world who responded to a 1997 IWMF survey said that not even one out of 10 decision-makers in their companies were women. The figure was even higher (79 percent) for respondents from Asia.

    (Source: "Where Women Stand", from the booklet "Leading in a Different Language: Will Women Change the News Media?" International Women's Media Foundation, 2001)


Participation and access of women to the media, and their impact on and use as an instrument for the advancement and empowerment of women, Women Watch, 2002.

47th Session of the Commission on the Status of Women

Report of on-line discussion on Women and Media (Section J, Beijing Platform for Action), November 8- December 17, 1999

Susanna George, Media and Globalisation: A View from the Margins, Isis International-Manila

Leading in a Different Language: Will Women Change the News Media? International Women’s Media Foundation, 2001

About Face



Women Organizing in the Malaysian Socio-cultural and Political Environment, by Cecilia Ng, Director, Women’s Development Collective (WDC) (October 2003)


Women's organizing and movements in the Caribbean and at the Global Level , an interview with Peggy Antrobus, who is from Grenada, in the Caribbean and has been involved in women's organizing since 1975. She was involved in formation of networks such the Caribbean Association for Feminist Research and Action (CAFRA) in 1980, Development Alternatives for Women in the New Era (DAWN) in 1985 and the International Gender and Trade Network (IGTN) in 1999. Peggy is presently writing a book about the global women's movement. (October 2003)


Women Action

Women Action is a global information, communication and media network that facilitated the active participation of NGOs in the Beijing +5 review process. Its long-term goal is women’s empowerment, with a special focus on women and media section of the Beijing Platform for Action. The site includes extensive information and documents that were produced from the review process.

Women's Institute for Freedom of the Press

The Women's Institute for Freedom of the Press (WIFP) is a nonprofit research, education, and publishing organization. It seeks to democratize the communications media by expanding freedom of the press (which includes its modern day electronic forms) to enable all people to have the equal opportunity to speak directly to the whole public about their own issues and concerns. WIFP has a freely accessible and comprehensive directory of women’s media organizations.

Isis International-Manila

Isis International-Manila caters to women’s information and communication needs. Part of its work is the production, gathering and dissemination of information relevant to women’s struggles within and outside the Asia-Pacific. It publishes We!, a weekly electronic bulletin that also comes out in a monthly print edition, and Women in Action, a magazine promoting discourse and analysis on Southern women’s issues. It also initiates campaigns and produces analyses on various women’s issues from a Southern feminist perspective.

International Women's Tribune Center (IWTC)

The International Women's Tribune Center (IWTC) is an international nongovernmental organization established in 1976 following the United Nations International Women's Year World Conference in Mexico City, Mexico. IWTC provides communication, information, education, and organizing support services to women's organizations and community groups working to improve the lives of women, particularly low-income women, in Africa, Asia and the Pacific, Latin America and the Caribbean, Eastern Europe, and Western Asia.

African Women's Media Center (AWMC)

The African Women's Media Center is the only continent-wide organization working with and on behalf of African women in the media. Since the center's founding, more than 900 women journalists have taken part in 21 programs and workshops conducted by the AWMC. The AWMC has created a wide range of programs for women journalists throughout Africa with the goal of bringing the voices of African women more prominently into the media -- as reporters, producers, managers, executives, CEOs and media experts. The AWMC offers a wide range of programs for women journalists throughout Africa and provides women journalists with the opportunity to network throughout the continent. In addition to training, the center is a clearinghouse for information on fellowships, scholarships and exchange opportunities.

Girls, Women + Media Project

The Girls, Women + Media Project is a 21st century, non-profit initiative and network working to increase awareness of how pop culture and media represent, affect, employ, and serve girls and women---and to advocate for improvement in those areas. The Project also seeks to educate and empower all consumers and citizens about consumer rights and responsibilities regarding the media, and to promote universal media literacy.

International Association of Women in Radio and Television

The International Association of Women in Radio and Television is a forum for personal contact and professional development among women broadcasters worldwide. Its goals are to: share professional input among members through networking, workshops, conferences, programme productions and management skills; contribute towards the enhancement of broadcasting by assuring that women’s views and values are an integral part of programming; and utilize the professional skills of members to support women in developing countries.

The International Women's Media Foundation (IWMF)

The mission of the International Women's Media Foundation (IWMF) is to strengthen the role of women in the news media around the world. The IWMF web site offers information on forums, studies, and reports that explore the obstacles women journalists face when trying to advance in their careers. The site also offers seminars and training sessions. The IWMF has built a network of women journalists from more than 100 countries. In addition to fostering alliances and connections, the network helps women in media share their strategies for success and access resources to help them achieve their goals.

The Women’s Desk at FAIR

The Women's Desk of Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) analyses sexism, racism and homophobia in the media and works with activists and media professionals to ensure that a broad range of feminist perspectives included in the public debate.

Taking Action


About-Face promotes positive self-esteem in girls and women of all ages, sizes, races and backgrounds through a spirited approach to media education, outreach and activism.


Adbusters Media Foundation is a global network of artists, activists, writers, pranksters, students, educators and entrepreneurs dedicated to reinventing the outdated paradigms of the consumer culture and building a brave new understanding of living. Their aim is to topple existing power structures and forge a major shift in the way we will live in the 21st century. The site offers spoofs of familiar advertisements.

Media Activist Kit

Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) offers a kit on "how-to" guides for identifying, documenting and challenging inaccurate or unfair news coverage, along with information about how to promote independent media.

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