How can radio empower women in the world’s poorest countries?

Dr Emma Heywood, Lecturer in Journalism, Politics and Communication in the Department of Journalism is working with communities in three of Africa’s poorest countries to assess the impact of radio on women’s rights and empowerment.

Local journalist interviews woman for radio
© Kalidou Sy - Fondation Hirondelle

The FemmePowermentAfrique project aims to investigate perceptions of women’s empowerment in this context and to produce recommendations to the benefit of radio organisations, media, listeners and marginalised and disempowered communities in the three countries. 

‘Radio is the main source of information for people in Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso,’ said Dr Heywood. ‘A large proportion of people are illiterate and because radio is broadcast in many of the national languages they can receive the factual information that they need. Newspapers aren’t extensively available, and they may not provide the information people need and often, people can’t actually read them. They don’t have the funds to buy a computer. They don’t often have Android phones so they can’t download anything or go on the internet. And they don’t have the source of electricity to have a television.’

The project enables Dr Heywood to work with NGOs, local radio stations and communities within these regions. Her team held focus groups to understand what information people wanted to hear on the radio, suggested changes to local journalists and broadcasters which could be made to programming, and then assessed the impact of these changes on the knowledge and empowerment of women in each area. 

‘There is widespread gender inequality in Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso,’ said Dr Heywood. ‘While radio is particularly suited to reaching marginalised and isolated communities in conflict- and post-conflict affected settings, radio broadcasts can often be partisan, not news-based, not relevant to particular communities and not in local languages. 

‘So a major task here is to not only increase and develop the targeting of programmes to include more women-related themes but also to help improve the content of the broadcasts themselves, so as to raise awareness regarding their rights and to help empower themselves politically and economically.

‘We asked the women in the focus groups what they thought empowerment was, what the point of it was, what programmes they wanted on the radio, what would help them etc. Some of the women said they’d like financial information and to understand how to set up a business, some wanted lighthearted information and things like ‘how to keep our husbands’, so they wouldn’t get a second wife. We found out what they wanted, we undertook a content analysis of radio programming, and worked out what information was being broadcasted. We also spoke to the radio stations to see how much they knew about their audiences and the terminology they were using around women on their shows.’

Following the work of FemmePowermentAfrique, changes have started to be made within the communities Dr Heywood has been working in. 

‘Now, one radio studio in Niger – Studio Kalangou, run by the Swiss media development agency – have brought in a ‘women’s hour’ at the weekend and they have continued monitoring their shows and their audiences. We also held participatory workshops with experts in the countries. We asked the women’s associations, for example, what they thought would be advisable to ask. How should we ask it? What would be beneficial? So it is essential we work with experts in the countries to make sure we’re doing it the right way.

‘We also ran workshops at the end of the Mali and Niger projects as well, and fed back to the participants to inform them what has changed and what will continue to change. It was so important to say ‘this is what has changed and this is why your voice has been so important. This has changed because you said it.’ 

Following the success of the FemmePowermentAfrique project, Heywood and her team have now been awarded funding from global humanitarian charity Elrha to take this method forward and work with radio stations in Burkina Faso to assess the information provided to Internal Displaced Persons (IDPs) or refugees, on Covid-19. 

Dr Heywood said: ‘Burkina Faso has one of the highest growing rates of IDPs in the world and it’s been missed. It’s being hidden. But there are 1.2 million IDPs in the country and a lot of the information they are being given isn’t necessarily accurate. There’s a lot of misinformation and fake news. So our aim is to find out what better information they can be given with regard to Covid-19.’ 

The aim of the new Elrha-funded project is to work with IDP data collectors within the country to retrieve any information they hear about Covid-19. Dr Heywood and her team in the UK and Burkina will then fact check the information, work out whether it is accurate or not, and what the sources of the information are, and pass it on to local radio stations who, in turn, will broadcast factual information about Covid-19. 

‘The people in these countries are the poorest in the world and hardly any attention is paid to them. The little attention that is paid to them is about immigration and conflict, you never see anything about the actual people. And yet communication is vital. So if you give people factual, informed information, they can then make a decision about who is running the country and what they’re doing. It becomes a democratic process. So we want to ensure that the information they’re being given is actually factually accurate’ Dr Heywood said.

‘One of the radio stations we’re working with in Mali started an educational programme earlier this year. There’s been striking in the country, and now with Covid-19, people haven’t been able to go to school, leading to a whole layer of the population who are missing out on education. We need to help ensure those people are kept educated.

‘The beauty of this project in Burkina Faso is that hopefully we’re going to see Covid-19 die out before the end of the project. That would be the ideal scenario, and then we can start asking questions like ‘what would you have done? What could you have done? How did you get that information?’ so we can feed it into the next pandemic.’

For more information about the project, and further work, see the FemmepowermentAfrique website. 

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