Earlier this year, Senegal was plunged into its most violent unrest for decades. In the capital Dakar and around the country, thousands of people – mostly men – took to the streets, burning cars and shops and hurling rocks at police. Police responded with force and at least ten people are thought to have died.
It was not economic reforms or new pandemic measures that had incited the disorder, but the arrest of a powerful man accused of rape. Although the violent demonstrations made headlines around the world, Senegalese media were transfixed by someone else: the woman behind the rape accusation.
In February, a massage parlour worker went to the police and accused Ousmane Sonko, a popular opposition politician, of raping and threatening to kill her. He was subsequently arrested in March – this is what sparked the violent demonstrations – and she became the target of harassment. (He is currently out on bail.)
Photos of this woman (who openDemocracy is not naming, given the harassment she’s faced) were splashed across newspapers and pinged around WhatsApp groups. She was depicted by most of the media as a woman with loose morals – a masseuse with a dubious past – as if this minimised or contradicted her accusation.
In one TV news show, for example, a panel of nine people (eight of whom were men) discussed if she might be lying. One panellist suggested that she was not telling the truth because, he said, in cases of rape, there are normally signs of resistance such as physical marks. She was forced to go into hiding.
More recently, another woman reportedly jumped from a balcony to escape an attempted rape. Multiple newspapers suggested that she was a prostitute, some on their front pages, when there is no evidence to suggest this.
Making women ‘appear odious’
Victim-blaming and sensationalism is painfully common in Senegalese media coverage of sexual violence – as we see in these cases. Although Senegalese women occupy senior positions in academia, culture and politics, they seem almost invisible in the media. When they do make headlines, it’s usually bad news.
I saw this first-hand when I was training as a multimedia journalist, and it led me to create Warkha TV – a media platform to promote and defend women’s rights. I believe it is important, and urgent, as both a feminist and a journalist to improve how women (especially victims of violence) are treated in the public eye.
Thankfully, I am not alone in recognising these problems – and in trying to change them. Numerous women’s rights advocates in Senegal, as well as other media professionals, have also pinpointed these concerns.
“The traditional media give an extremely misogynistic treatment to cases of morality that involve women. Women are presented as objects, manipulators or temptresses,” said Aminata Libain Mbengue, a psychologist and feminist. “This is extremely serious [...] the message sent is to punish women.”
Daouda Diop, president of HOMDEF, a Senegalese association of men who support women’s rights, told me: "I think that what interests the media, including television media, is above all to make women appear odious – to reinforce the idea that it is the man who must lead the communities and societies.”
I also spoke to Ibrahima Lissa Faye, founder of the online newspaper PressAfrik and president of the Association of Publishers and Professionals of the Online Press. He agreed that most media outlets in Senegal appear quick to make moral judgements when women are in the headlines.
“It’s really unfortunate the way the media treats questions of morality. We can all see that women are described in a less favourable light,” he said. “There have been initiatives and efforts to strengthen the capacities of journalists in different newsrooms, but it hasn’t been very successful.”
Such coverage risks women’s privacy – and their safety. Mame Woury Thioubou, culture editor at the daily newspaper Le Quotidien, said: “Each time a woman is accused of something, there is every chance her picture or her name will be on the front page […] sometimes without even taking the elementary precautions that are required in terms of respecting legal procedures or confidentiality.”
Such behaviour also reflects a lack of training within newsrooms, according to Maimouna Astou Yade, president of the women’s organisation JGen, which promotes women’s entrepreneurship and combats female circumcision and gender-based violence. “They are not necessarily trained on the sensitive dimension of sexual violence and it is sometimes very problematic for journalists to use the right concepts or make the right comparisons.”
It’s obvious that it is important to have feminist media and feminist journalists
To improve matters, Lissa Faye believes "it is necessary to strengthen what there is already in the editorial offices and to make sure that people who have undergone these trainings can weigh in.”
But others are calling for greater – and urgent – change within the media industry. Yade argued: "It’s obvious that it is important to have feminist media and feminist journalists – especially women, who will bring this essential touch in the way information is treated.” Mbengue wants to see feminist “activist journalists”, rather than simply more women in the media.
At Warkha TV, we cover all aspects of violence against women, including legal definitions and punishments, because many Senegalese people do not know what the law says. We also give a voice to women victims and survivors of violence, to allow them to be the narrators of their own stories.
I’ve also been encouraged – despite the many challenges that remain – to see some journalists taking a more considered approach to covering women’s stories.
Woury Thioubou, for example, explained: “When a woman has a problem, I try to help present things in such a way that people understand what is at stake, and that it is not just another news item.”
Social media is, to some extent, providing new platforms for women’s voices.
Mbengue was one of the feminist activists behind the hashtag #JusticePourLouise, which garnered attention on social media this summer in Senegal and across Francophone West Africa. Louise is the pseudonym of a 15-year-old schoolgirl allegedly raped by the 19-year-old son of a celebrity journalist (who was himself previously sentenced to prison for rape in 2013).
A widely viewed video of the incident was posted online, and although her mother made a complaint, police were slow to investigate. Activists used the hashtag to bring attention to the story and pressure authorities to take action. On 29 June, one month after the alleged attack took place, the accused was arrested. In a court hearing in September, he denied the accusations. He is being held in prison.
"Social media is an alternative that can counterbalance this problematic treatment [of women],” said Mbengue.
While there is still much to be done to change the way the Senegalese media cover violence against women, cases like this give me some hope – and prove how women’s voices, when unleashed, can change the world.
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