KAMPALA — In a country where only 15 percent of voices on the radio belong to women, one Ugandan radio station aims to make them feel they have a place in the media landscape. Mama FM is the first female-run radio station in Africa. Its goal is to combat stereotypes and make sure women’s voices are finally heard.
Grace Mazirwe, a university student in Kampala, knows she wants to work as a radio technician. But she says it is a challenging field and at Ugandan radio stations it can be especially challenging for women.
“You know, sometimes ladies who are engineers, they are not respected too much when they go out. Maybe they try to say they don’t know, maybe they are slow at learning,” she said.
That is why she chose to intern at a community radio station called Mama FM.
“These people they are really treating me well, said Mazirwe. "They keep encouraging me. They are like, ‘yeah, you can do it. You are a lady, but still you can do it.’”
Launched 13 years ago by the Uganda Media Women’s Association, Mama FM is Africa’s first radio station run entirely by women. Director Margaret Sentamu says that in an industry dominated by men, it has an important role to play.
“The goal of the station is to have a woman expressing herself without fear or favor, to bring more women’s voices onto the airwaves. Because we know that most of the mainstream media kind of marginalizes women’s voices and issues,” she said.
In a county where literacy rates are low, most people get their news from the radio. But according to Mama FM’s statistics, only 15 percent of the voices heard on Ugandan radio belong to women.
Not only do men tend to be the ones speaking in the Ugandan media, says Sentamu, they are nearly always the ones making editorial decisions.
She adds that this affects the way women are portrayed.
“Their pictures get in the newspapers maybe because they have stabbed a man, maybe they have been sexually violated, maybe they are fighting. And maybe sometimes you get women who are dressed skimpily. And that’s when they appear in the media,” said Sentamu.
A radio station run entirely by women, Sentamu says, projects a more realistic image of women’s lives. But it also challenges the idea that women need to be managed by men.
“This station was actually started to provide a platform for women to prove themselves, that we are here, we can handle [it] and we are in charge. When it comes to positions here, all big positions here are managed by women,” she said.
Mama FM’s coverage focuses on the problems and experiences of ordinary women. They broadcast a two-hour show on domestic violence, for example. And when they do cover breaking news, the focus is on how it affects women.
This, says Sentamu, is what sets their coverage apart. “I would say that we cover almost the same topics, but it is the angle that matters. Here it is a women’s angle. We know that men make news, but we make sure that women also comment on what men have said,” she said.
But it is not only women who listen to Mama FM. A survey in 2007 found that nearly four million men and women across the country were tuning in. The youth are listening as well, says Sentamu.
And as more interns like Mazirwe are trained and move into the mainstream media, she adds, Uganda is starting to accept that women also have a right to be heard.