Lecture: Gender, women's rights and the media

The lecture will give the students a brief introduction to what gender is. They will learn about relevant key terms and gain insight into the history of the women’s rights movement. They will be informed about documents protecting women’s rights and the work of the United Nations (UN) in the gender field. They will also receive tips on how to create well-made media productions on gender issues. 


What is gender? 


According to the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women, gender refers to “the social attributes and opportunities associated with being male and female and the relationships between women and men and girls and boys, as well as the relations between women and those between men. These attributes, opportunities and relationships are socially constructed and are learned through socialization processes. They are context/time-specific and changeable. Gender determines what is expected, allowed and valued in a woman or a man in a given context. In most societies there are differences and inequalities between women and men in responsibilities assigned, activities undertaken, access to and control over resources, as well as decision-making opportunities. Gender is part of the broader socio-cultural context. Other important criteria for socio-cultural analysis include class, race, poverty level, ethnic group and age.” [1]

 When journalists are to write well-prepared stories on gender issues, they should be aware of the fact that gender stereotypes influence society in a profound way, and that they can lead to discrimination and human rights violations. When making media productions about gender issues, journalists should orient themselves and gain insight into some basic terms, such as gender role, sex, gender identity, femininity, masculinity, gender gap, gender equality, gender stereotypes, gender prejudices, queering, bisexuality, transgender and third gender among others.


Gender and the women's rights movement 


Many researchers maintain that the history of gender is closely connected to the women’s rights movements.[2] The feminists were the ones who brought the term “gender” into common usage. When we are considering the women’s rights movement, we must be aware of the fact that this is a process that is just as relevant and important today. From the so-called first wave of the women’s rights movement – suffragettes in the nineteenth century who fought for the rights of women to vote in public elections –, we have today what many claim to be the fourth wave: feminists who make use of modern technology and the world wide web, moving their activism online.[3]

One of the first countries where women started to fight for their rights was the USA at the end of the eighteenth and beginning of the nineteenth centuries. Abigail Smith Adams[4], one of the first American feminists, said: “If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies, we are determined to foment a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice or representation”. During the French Revolution, the feminist movement also started to develop in Europe as the “suffragette” movements appeared. In 1848 in the USA, in the town of Seneca Falls, New York, one of the first documents addressing the social, civil and religious rights of women was signed at the first women’s convention to be organised by women. The document was entitled “The Declaration of Rights and Sentiments”. At a time when traditional roles were still very much in place, the declaration caused controversy. The famous English philosopher and economist, John Stuart Mill was among those who supported the ideas behind the document. In 1903, Emmeline Pankhurst created the Women’s Social and Political Movement (WSPU) that became a platform for suffragette ideas and the British movement asserted women’s rights. After one year of activity, the WSPU counted 5000 members. The suffragettes were controversial, but gained respect and became popular because of their radical methods for influencing politicians. After they organised a hunger strike in 1894, the British Parliament was forced to grant the right to vote to women at the local level.

The timeline below shows that it took more than a century from when women started to express their political will for voting rights, to their actually gaining such influence in elections worldwide. However, there are still a few countries that deny women voting rights, so this right is still not universal.




The UN, human rights and gender issues


Equal rights for men and women are established as a fundamental principle in the United Nation´s (UN) Charter, the UN’s founding document that was adopted by world leaders in 1945. According to the Charter, the protection and promotion of women's rights is a responsibility for states all over the world.

Discrimination based on sex is prohibited under almost every human rights treaty, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Their common article 3 expresses the right to equality between men and women in the enjoyment of all rights. In addition, there are treaties and expert bodies specifically dedicated to the realization of women's rights. The main document protecting the rights of women, considered as “the international bill of rights for women”, is the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). The convention was adopted by the UN in 1979 and came into force on 3 September 1981. The Convention defines discrimination against women as: "...any distinction, exclusion or restriction made on the basis of sex which has the effect or purpose of impairing or nullifying the recognition, enjoyment or exercise by women, irrespective of their marital status, on a basis of equality of men and women, of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural, civil or any other field”. The Convention sets the agenda for national action to end discrimination against women.

The Conventions´ article 5, addresses gender stereotypes.

Article 5 States Parties shall take all appropriate measures: (a) To modify the social and cultural patterns of conduct of men and women, with a view to achieving the elimination of prejudices and customary and all other practices which are based on the idea of the inferiority or the superiority of either of the sexes or on stereotyped roles for men and women

The Convention has been ratified by 188 UN states which must submit a report every four years detailing their compliance with its provisions. The Committee on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women – a group of 23 independent experts on women's rights –reviews the states’ reports. The committee can also hear claims of violations and inquire into situations of grave or systemic contraventions of women’s rights.

Other important UN mechanisms that work to protect human rights for women are:

  • The Special Rapporteur on violence against women, its causes and consequences
    The Special Rapporteur is an independent expert who investigates and monitors violence against women, and recommends and promotes solutions for its elimination. This UN mechanism was appointed first in 1994.
  • Working group on the issue of discrimination against women in law and practice
    In 2010 the Human Rights Council established a working group to promote the elimination of laws that discriminate against women and/or have a discriminatory impact on them.


Today’s challenges 


Today gender equality continues to be an important UN issue. The organisation points to these key challenges explaining why millions of women around the world still experience discrimination:

  • Laws and policies prohibit women from equal access to land, property and housing
  • Economic and social discrimination results in fewer and poorer life choices for women, rendering them vulnerable to human trafficking
  • Gender-based violence affects at least 30% of women globally
  • Women are denied their sexual and reproductive health rights
  • Women’s human rights defenders are ostracised by their communities and seen as a threat to religion, honour or culture
  • Women’s crucial role in peace and security is often overlooked, as are the particular risks they face in conflict situations


Sexual minorities 


Unlike other vulnerable groups, such as women, refugees, children and people with disabilities – which after much effort have been granted their own human rights conventions – the UN has not developed such special protection mechanisms for sexual minorities. Although around a hundred thousand gays were arrested during Hitler's Nazi regime between 1933 and 1945, and between 5000 and 15 000 were killed in the concentration camps, sexual orientation was not mentioned as a reason for discrimination in the 1948 Universal Declaration on Human Rights (unlike race, colour, gender, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin). Nor do later human rights conventions mention sexual orientation explicitly as a basis for discrimination that the states must avoid and counteract. This may have contributed to the fact that governmental authorities continue to prosecute sexual minorities in many parts of the world. It was therefore a milestone moment when the UN Human Rights Committee in 1994 stated that the right to not be discriminated against due to gender also should include sexual orientation.[5]

In recent decades, new knowledge and openness about sexuality and identity have created more tolerance and respect towards sexual minorities. The media’s role in raising awareness has been important. Famous people have "come out of the closet" and countless activist organisations have been established. By addressing international human rights and using both public and social media, the activists have won many important victories. But there are still major problems. Homosexuals are banned in about 70 states. In a handful of countries like Iran, Saudi Arabia and Sudan, homosexual practices can be punished with the death penalty. Sexual minorities are still discriminated and forced into social isolation.

In the UN system, issues connected to sexual orientation and gender identity have been controversial for many years. However, there have been developments here as well. In 2016, the UN Human Rights Council adopted a resolution which deplores acts of violence and discrimination, in all regions of the world, committed against individuals because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. Moreover, it appointed an independent expert to work on these issues.[6]

 The women’s rights movement has had considerable development and attained good results even if it took a long time to get this far. Even if there are still demanding challenges ahead, the movement´s historical fight continues to be a great inspiration for people all over the world striving for increased respect for their human rights.


Examples of how to make good media productions


The media has a huge influence on how gender issues are discussed and dealt with in society. It is thus important for journalists to be aware of the power they have, and that through their work they can either confirm and strengthen gender stereotypes, or discuss or even counteract such discrimination.

 There are many ways the students can work with gender issues. Below are some examples of media productions they can prepare and work with:

  • Analysing contemporary gender issues in their own or in other countries. What are the most discussed issues and challenges? How do we make a good and professional media production?
  • Addressing gender issues in a historic perspective. In their own homeland or other countries. Has the development been positive or negative? Why?
  • Interview activists or politicians who work with gender issues. What do they experience in their work? What are the main obstacles?
  • Analyse the latest report from your government to the UN Committee on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women. What problems and main challenges are raised? Have NGOs working on women’s rights sent so-called “shadow reports”? If yes: what are the main challenges they address?
  • Find cases or advertisements in newspaper or magazines that
    1) confirm and strengthen gender stereotypes
    2) question, or have the aim of reducing gender stereotypes
  • Find examples of media cases that have highlighted human rights issues connected to gender.

 In the field of media advertising, gender is very often objectified. Here are some examples. What do the students think about the pictures? Can they find similar cases


Information sources


Information sources that can be good tools for journalists when working on gender issues:

  • Gender issues dictionaries and thesauruses
  • Historical facts on the issue the journalist is covering
  • Availability of several, probably even conflicting, points of view by using questionnaires and interviews of experts
  • Social network analysis
  • Previous media pieces from other journalists
  • Feedback on the media story of the journalist. Social media monitoring: collecting opinions for the next stories, comments on social networks on the story, reposts and so on


These UN organisations might be helpful:



Examples of media cases


The session leader can show different examples of media cases focusing on gender issues. Below are two examples of cases with a human rights perspective. After analysing the cases, the students can work to find their own media cases relating to gender issues to present to the others.


Follow-up group work  



[2]  See: Gender: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis by Joan W. Scott, The American Historical Review, Vol. 91, No. 5 (Dec., 1986), pp. 1053-1075, p. 1054; Блохина Н.А., ПОНЯТИЕ ГЕНДЕРА: СТАНОВЛЕНИЕ, ОСНОВНЫЕ КОНЦЕПЦИИ И ПРЕДСТАВЛЕНИЯ, http://www.gender-cent.ryazan.ru/blohina.html; A History of "Gender" Joanne Meyerowitz The American Historical Review, Vol. 113, No. 5 (Dec., 2008), pp. 1346-1356, p.1346-1347 

[4] Wife of John Adams, the second President of the United States

[5] Lillian Hjorth. (2015). Menneskerettigheter og aktivisme, Aktive Fredsforlag

[6] Resolution adopted 30 June 2016, by a vote of 23 to 18 countries, with 6 abstentions. In favour: Albania, Belgium, Bolivia (Plurinational State of), Cuba, Ecuador, El Salvador, France, Georgia, Germany, Latvia, Mexico, Mongolia, Netherlands, Panama, Paraguay, Portugal, Republic of Korea, Slovenia, Switzerland, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, Venezuela (Bolivarian Republic of), Viet Nam.  Against were: Algeria, Bangladesh, Burundi, China, Congo, Côte d’Ivoire, Ethiopia, Indonesia, Kenya, Kyrgyzstan, Maldives, Morocco, Nigeria, Qatar, Russian Federation, Saudi Arabia, Togo, and United Arab Emirates. Abstaining: Botswana, Ghana, India, Namibia, Philippines, and South Africa.

Tamara Gromova, Phd. School of Journalism and Mass Communications, St.Petersburg State University (Russia)

An online manual on intercultural understanding, ethics and human rights to be used by teachers and students in journalism education. Read more.

Email : post@journalism-edu.org

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