By Valentine Chanda
When Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf was elected the first African female head of state she said her success represented a victory for women who have been working to improve their role in African society.
Five years since her ascendance to power one would have hoped that the Liberian leader had proven a woman’s role is not about serving a man. Alas, this is not the case if one looks at the way women continue to be portrayed in Zambian advertisements. It appears there is a systematic campaign to remind women their place is still in the kitchen.
The main culprits are advertisers of detergent powders and other cleaning products. One advert, currently airing on both national and private television, shows a man dragging his wife to the village chief and claiming that she doesn’t know how to do laundry.
“This woman does not know how to wash. And you know what that means to a man like me in this village,” the man says.
“So?” the chief asks.
“I need a divorce,” the man replies.
“There is no way in our tradition a woman can fail to wash. Young lady you are destroying your own home,” the chief responds, berating the young woman.
At this point the chief’s wife interjects on behalf of the young woman and introduces her to a new detergent which will solve all her problems. The couple lives happily ever after.
Another advert starts on a different note, showing a man doing laundry. I watched it the first time and though: “Finally someone has got it right. For once this strikes a balance.”
However, my joy was short lived. At the end of the advert the man washing clothes spoils it all.
Speaking in Bemba, he says: “What is surprising me is that it is us men who know this much about detergent. There is no reason to get married now.”
I asked a female colleague, Jesinta Kunda, if she saw anything wrong with such adverts.
“The world has moved on. My brothers do the laundry at home,” she said. “The two adverts give the impression that only women should wash clothes.”
She thought the first advert was in bad taste. “Honestly, that advert should be withdrawn; it is encouraging the oppression and abuse of women. It is not only offensive to women, but men as well. People don’t marry because they want someone to do their laundry.”
I also asked a male friend, Noel Mwale, what he thought. Concurring with Kunda, he said awareness is needed to help shape the nature of information we get from radio and television stations.
But he also said as consumers of media, women need to force it to modernise.
“Women should not expect the media to change without them taking an active part in shaping that change. It has been said before that freedom is not given voluntarily by the oppressor; it is demanded by the oppressed. I for one do the laundry at home, but such ads make progressive people like me think twice,” he said, adding that he wants his two daughters to grow up in a country where they will not be limited by their gender.
The 2010 Gender Links Gender and Media Progress Study found that despite the great strides women have made in breaking political glass ceilings in Southern Africa, they are still widely stereotyped in the media. Research found that men dominate in every news category, with women’s voices being heard the most on stories related to gender equality, children and media and entertainment.
What’s worse, the report, which analysed more than 30 000 news items in the region, found hundreds of blatant stereotypes and demeaning stories similar to the Zambian advertisements.
Political, media and civil society leaders need to show leadership on this issue. Ordinary people like Kunda and Mwale also need to take action, lodging complaints with television stations which air these advertisements and with newspapers and other media houses that produce sexist or gender-blind stories.
As long as policy-makers and media consumers do not see the harm in such adverts, Zambia risks maintaining traditions that are an obstacle to development. The country cannot develop if women, who constitute slightly more than half of the population, continue to be treated as second-class citizens and servants of men.
After her election, Johnson-Sirleaf told a BBC reporter that her victory was testimony to all the effort that has gone into bringing about gender equality throughout Africa and the world. But that effort is still fresh and the great strides can easily be repealed if the public doesn’t stay vigilant and ensure those in positions of power, from corporations to media to government, keep their promises and continue to fight for gender equality.
Valentine Chanda is a Zambian journalist. This article is part of the Gender Links Opinion and Commentary Service, bringing you fresh views on everyday news.