Power of Togetherness in Advocacy Work: Leading and Acting for an Antisexist Media

BY: Valbona Sulçe - 19. January 2023

The problem of gender-based violence in the Eastern Europe media

Gender parity is not recovering. According to the Global Gender Gap Report (2022), it will take another 132 years to close the global gender gap. As crises compound, women's workforce outcomes are suffering, and the risk of global gender parity backsliding further intensifies.

Helvetas, through its Western Balkan Regional Advocacy Network, is increasingly acting as a knowledge broker for civil society organizations (CSOs), media actors, industries, partners, and regional projects to further its advocacy for gender equality and social justice. On the eve of the international campaign 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence, the network responded to a request from Albanian Women in Audiovisual Media (AWA) - an Albanian NGO - to bring ahead its advocacy campaign for a “Gender Sensitive Lenses on Audiovisual Media Law”.

Prominent media members, engaged CSOs, and development experts gathered to address the burning issue of sexism in the media (follow the full webinar at this link).


But what is sexism? According to the Council of Europe, sexism is any act, gesture, visual representation, spoken or written words, practice or behaviour based upon the idea that a person or group of persons is inferior because of their gender, which occurs in the public or private sphere, whether online or offline. A recent investigation into Greek media showed that even EU countries are not immune from this concern. While some hold that progress has been made in the emancipation against physical violence, more needs to be done to eradicate discrimination and psychological violence.  Through the lens of advocacy action, participants took on a lively exchange on steps needed to tackle gender-based violence in the Western Balkan and Eastern European media landscape.

Changing gender stereotypes in media through policy work: hope for the best and prepare for the worst.

According to the Albanian Women in Audiovisual (AWA) monitoring report, the number of women invited as guests in all TV shows remains low. Furthermore, topics of news reports follow entrenched stereotypes such as fashion, cooking, family, or showbiz. Women find themselves out of the critical and serious issues to be discussed. The number of cases, when girls and women are victims of violence, remains high and quite often the victims are blamed or rationalisation of the crimes committed against them is offered. Worse, the way the media portrays victims of gender-based violence is highly stereotypical, adding insult to injury. The Code of Ethics of Journalists does not count sexism as a violation, while the legal framework on gender equality doesn't address sexism at all as an issue. With ownership and editorial positions being almost entirely filled by men, it means that solutions need to come from within- an on-system improvement of the policy framework and serious enforcement on the part of institutions.

Policy changes, however, do not follow a linear trajectory. The advocacy experience has shown that stakeholders need to “hope for the best and prepare for the worst”- says Bernd Steimann, who currently leads the policy & advocacy work of HELVETAS. This statement holds especially true in the men-run media world, where gender roles are often not correctly balanced.

Understanding the problem is half of the solution. Be visible, raise awareness, and keep pressure!

Showing a photo of a woman with a man’s hand around her neck instead of a policeman who can save a victim of violence; paraphrasing a murder as “a crime of passion due to unknown motives” is so usual on media reporting, - says Alice Taylor, an editor of Albania’s main English online news website. Therefore, actors interested in making change happen must be equipped with a resilient mindset to learn from failure, stay engaged, and rebuild momentum when it falters.

Most importantly, the drive to make change happen needs to spread to partners accompanying advocates on the journey, and they need to be constantly convinced to stay on the path together.

Therefore, not losing faith in advocacy is paramount, as advocacy is a circular and interactive process. Steps in advocating efforts vary, but core strategic steps remain the deep analysis of the problem, developing a strategy, monitoring, and constant learning. Advocating actors work where not all variables are controlled, such as political processes, socio-economic development, and other ad-hoc priorities is also important. Consequently, advocacy actors must have an adaptive mindset that allows for new strategies.

How about creating a new "norm", a new "cool" as a tool for counter-sexism in mainstream media?

"The Balkans is a particular place to be raised and live as a woman. You are surrounded by scandals, tabloids, and sexism which pop up regularly in the media, and usually romanticise violence. The use of women as 'entertainment ladies', while men are discussing politics, is over-exhausting," - says Ljupka, a gender researcher and feminist activist from North Macedonia.

As a change maker, you first start from the personal level, then it scales into interactions with society, and in a third cycle, with professionals.

The media content consumed can be the product of conscious or unconscious biases. What media is producing is contributing to socially acceptable models in the audience and wider society. Tackling the issue in its core needs reconstruction of the models: countering the toxic, discriminatory, deeply rooted stereotypes, and prejudices and transform them into constructive, supportive, inclusive models and create new positive values, - advice Sihana Nebiu, OSCE expert on gender, democracy and governance.

Build a business case? - might be a good idea!

Having exchanges on sexism and gender discrimination between advocates and other stakeholders can bring out-of-the-box solutions. Nothing is more effective than building a business case to tackle this issue.

Agnieszka Kroskowska, Helvetas’s organisational Gender and Social Equity Coordinator suggests that while fundamentally, it is about equality, dignity and rights, having a business case when everything is all about profits and margins is paramount for success. Advocates need to adapt their language and strategies to engage and convince media owners that they will not lose if they strive for equality; on the contrary, they can benefit more if they change their practices.

For instance, there is a ton of evidence that businesses do better when more women are in different positions. From a consumer perspective: women are a huge powerhouse in a consumer-based population; they constitute 25% of the people seen or read about in the media. Showing media owners that being more responsive to this  untapped segment of consumers can diversify and increase their outreach, affecting marketing revenues for the better. This can be an incentive to improve the media work culture in the inclusion, treatment and representation of women.


Connect with Helvetas Regional Advocacy Network AdvocacyWesternBalkans@helvetas.org! We would be happy to discuss your advocacy case in our next webinars!