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Mama’s the word: Inside Africa’s all-female radio service


Margaret Sentamu (second right) and members of the Mama FM team. by Chris Matthews

Radio pioneers

Up in the hilly district of Kisaasi, in Uganda’s capital Kampala, it is another busy day for the Mama FM team with discussions on family planning, human rights, along with international and local news all to be aired before the end of the day.

Founded by Uganda Media Women’s Association (UMWA), Mama FM is the first all-female run radio service in Africa.

The station gives a voice to young female journalists in a country where traditional gender roles often persist and shines a spotlight on underreported areas and problems impacting women’s rights.

One of those journalists is Hilda Namara. A recent journalism graduate, Namara joined the station in November and is among its team of more than 20 volunteer reporters and staff.

‘I really felt good coming to Mama FM because I want to defend the rights of women and children,’ the 24-year-old says. ‘Here, you have to bring out something educative that can impact society and the young generation.’

The day we speak Namara has just finished producing two news bulletins for the station, including a segment on raising awareness of the Maputo Protocol – the legislation promoting human rights and women’s rights across Africa.

‘As a women I have the right to stand up and speak out about the problems – they give us that courage at Mama FM,’ Namara says. ‘It is not like other media houses where they want catchy stories and headlines.’

A member of the Mama FM team.

Chris Matthews

Radio pioneers

The service was first launched in 2001 by Margaret Sentamu and a small group of female journalists keen to address the lack of diversity in the country’s media.

Globally, the presence of women in print, radio and television production is 37 per cent, according to the Global Media Monitoring Report 2015, while across Africa that figure is only 22 per cent.

Working for Uganda’s national radio and television services in the 1980s, Sentamu says it was rare to find many women working in such positions, something she believes stems from long-standing gender roles in society.

Although 34 per cent of parliamentary seats are occupied by women, much of Ugandan society still sees women operate domestic and household duties.

‘Women in Uganda have been brought up to be submissive and are not expected to speak in public,’ Sentamu, UMWA’s executive director, says.

‘In terms of the gender roles it is women who are expected to do the domestic work so you need to have 80 per cent of your time concentrated on domestic chores.’

‘When it comes to the 8am to 5pm jobs women would rather do that because they can’t stay beyond 5pm so when bigger stories are breaking we are already at home looking after our family.’

Breaking broadcast boundaries

UMWA was created in 1983 and Sentamu joined three years later with the organization focusing efforts on advocacy and raising awareness of issues faced by women in Ugandan society.

But it was while a journalism teacher in Kampala’s universities in the 1990s, where in a class of 15 only two were female, that Sentamu thought of creating a dedicated media service that put women in editorial control.

‘We started thinking of how we can increase the voices of women in the media,’ she says. ‘[Some people think] we are not meant to do political stories or are not expected to be aggressive in journalism.’

‘We had been working with other organizations but if you are not in charge of the editorial content you may not get the stories. So we thought the best way is to create own our own media.’

I am a feminist, I want to see more women in the limelight but there is this cultural brainwash that women cannot break through

Today, the station houses two recording studios, large work spaces for its journalists and is accessible across central and southern Uganda with 90 per cent of shows in the local Luganda language.

Its programming also includes entertainment, sports and music shows but for Namara, it is the opportunity to educate and challenge traditional gender views that excites.

‘I love the way things are done here especially in the news department,’ she says. ‘I know my journalism is not for nothing,

‘I know I can help out a child, a lady or any vulnerable people that are suffering through my work. As media, we can create impact.’

The station has both male and female journalists and programme coordinator Catherine Apalat says through its promotion of female voices the service shows the need for a balanced media in the country, while at the same time breaking down stereotypes.

‘We aim to mainstream issues in our programming,’ Apalat says. ‘It is not all about the problems that women face. Women do not live in an island and men have to know these issues so that they are able to live in peace.’

Chris Matthews

Slow progress

UMWA, which also conducts rural outreach programs, now boasts more than 180 members and with internships and enrollment at universities on the rise, improvements are being made.

Today, there are many female news personalities in the country with the likes of Barbara Kajai, editor-in-chief of nationwide media house Vision Group and Monitor Publications’ managing director Carol Beyana helping close the gender gap.

But many still believe progress is slow. Nankwanga Eunice Kasirye, a former editor at NBS Television and now Uganda coordinator for the International Association of Women in Radio and Television (IAWRT), says more needs to be done to promote gender equality from a young age.

‘I am a feminist, I want to see more women in the limelight but there is this cultural brainwash that women cannot break through,’ she says.

‘It starts from the schools and homes where we come from. Girls should be mentored that they have equal potential and they grow up with an open mind.’

And while she says the number of women pursuing journalism careers has increased, there remains a lack of opportunity in newsrooms across the country.

‘We want people's’ mindset to change,’ she adds. ‘So in a period of five years we have a generation of strong media ladies and have a ripple effect of the generations that come after.’

‘All the men in positions of management we need to involve them so we can build a generation of media that is respected regardless of sex.’

IAWRT recently launched a mentorship programme for aspiring journalists and Mama FM continues to have a steady stream of interns – 75 per cent of whom must be women – while in May the station will host the first Gender Media Awards in Uganda.

Sentamu, whose own daughter is embarking on a journalism career, admits that while funding is a hurdle, the Mama FM team remain committed to championing gender equality in the media and Ugandan society at large.

‘We are not-for-profit, so it does not belong to me for example but to the women’s movement,’ she says, ‘We founded it, we manage it and we are not ready to let it go.’

And for Hilda Namara, who has her reporting sights set on issues of land ownership and inheritance rights for women over the coming weeks, Mama FM’s pioneering role in Ugandan media is as strong as ever.

‘I am really proud to be a journalist,’ she says. ‘As a young journalist I know it is important to me to be a voice to the voiceless and be an ear to those people.’


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